PULLMAN, Wash. – A single, horrific day shaped a decade of American politics, said Washington State University associate professor and political scientist Travis Ridout. And while the 10th anniversary of 9/11 finds the nation focused more on jobs than on terrorists, the attack still resonates, he said.
“Ten years later, we still see the changes, some for the better but others for the worse,” said Ridout, who co-wrote “The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising” (Temple University Press, 2011) and has served as an election night consultant to CBS News.
In the months following the terrorist attacks, the nation united, said Ridout, recalling how Democrats and Republicans linked arms on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sang “God Bless America.” But it wasn’t long before a united America began to unravel as Republican and Democrat political beliefs grew more extreme, especially regarding the war in Iraq and national security.
Today, the two parties couldn’t be further apart.
“Partisan polarization has reached a new high,” said Ridout, an assertion backed up by Pew Research Center surveys and his own research. “The data shows it. The nation’s political discourse is nastier.”
Ironically, the issues driving a wedge between the two parties are bringing more Americans to the voting booths, said Ridout. Pre-9/11, when Social Security and the environment were front-row-center, voter turnout was mediocre at best, he said. A decade later, voters are focusing on the steep price tag for fighting two wars while 14 million Americans are out of work.
“When we’re mad, we vote, and we’re facing bigger issues than we were before Sept. 11,” said Ridout.
For whatever reasons, high voter turnout can be a good thing, he said. When more people participate in the public process, it makes for a healthy democracy. What’s more, it can be a wake-up call to political leaders to fight less and seek common ground.