In the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (see Razib’s review here and the book’s blog here), the authors note that the two major political parties have become more polarized in various ways since the 1990s, even though the average voter hasn’t changed much. Also, the key message of the book is that the red state – blue state culture war is mostly restricted to high-income, and to a lesser extent middle-income voters.
They searched some mainstream media outlets for the words “polarizing / polarization,” as well as buzzwords for the cultural split like “NASCAR dad” and “soccer mom,” and found that they either show up for the first time or increase during the early/mid-1990s and remain as high today. I’ve searched the NYT for “partisan,” as well as a variety of newspapers for the pejorative “partisan hack,” and they show the same pattern.
Here are the graphs:
For the first graph, I took the number of articles with “partisan” and standardized this by dividing by the number of articles with “the” — basically, all articles. (The 2008 point is an estimate based on the year so far.) Aside from 1984, when there was a huge divide between the two presidential candidates, there is nearly no change from 1981 to 1991. However, in 1992, when the culture war begins to take center stage, the frequency increases to about twice as high as during the 1980s.
For the second graph, I did a Lexis-Nexis search for “partisan hack,” a common culture war swear-word for what the other guy is. I included the 12 newspapers with the highest counts, and that covered most of the major papers as well as some lesser known ones (see full list below). Not being able to search the database for “the,” I couldn’t standardize these data, but they show the same pattern as above, so I doubt the year-to-year variation in total output explains it. Here is the total output per year for the NYT, for comparison. Again, the 2008 point is for the year so far.
Aside from a few jabs from The Imblerian in the early 1990s, the first time this phrase shows up is in 1994, and it spreads to an order of magnitude larger by the 2000s. Outside of newspapers, Lexis-Nexis returns a result from 1984 where a politician is quoted as calling another a partisan hack. So the term must have been invented before the 1990s, but surged during the culture war.
These data agree with the larger picture in the book: the topic of partisanship has become much more talked about since the 1990s, and the specific slander “partisan hack” has increased noticeably during the same time.
List of newspapers included in the Lexis-Nexis results: New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Boston Globe, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The Star-Ledger, Richmond Times, Palm Beach Post, St. Petersburg Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Oregonian.