on March 26, 2011
For those who view themselves as political moderates, these are troubling times. Despite the renewed calls to bipartisanship and civility, the reality is that the two parties in Congress are very far apart from each other and continue to show every sign of being far more eager to engage in partisan flame-throwing than in bipartisan problem-solving.
And yet: how did things get to be this way? And what about the supposedly moderate public: how and why do they stand for this? To understand these questions, a good place to start is Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics, by Morris P. Fiorina, a professor of Political Science at Stanford University.
Disconnect is essentially a book in two parts. The first is an extensive compendium of data in support of the claim that there is indeed a widening disconnect between a largely moderate voting public and an ideological polarized political class. The second part is the story of how that disconnect came about.
Just how moderate the public actually is turns out to be a matter of some debate in political science circles. An alternate view - and useful foil for discussing Fiorina's book - is Alan Abramowitz's The Disappearing Center (which I reviewed here), which makes the case the current polarization reflects the fact that Americans have sorted into two distinct ideological camps, and that politicians are polarized because the public is polarized (and representative democracy is therefore alive and well.)
Fiorina sees it differently: "The orientation [of the public] is more pragmatic," he writes. "Far more people position themselves on the issues on a case-by-case basis rather than deduce their specific positions from some abstract principle....Those who ostensibly represent the American public take positions that collectively do not provide an accurate representation of the public."
Part of the disagreement results from different data employed. Whereas Abramowitz focuses mostly on ideological self-identification and a few hot-button issues, Fiorina incorporates a broader range of issue polling, and finds that Democrats and Republicans are not nearly as far apart on most of the major issues as is commonly believed - on 40 Pew survey items, Democrats and Republicans differ only by an average of 14 points.
Moreover, they are not even moving apart that rapidly. In 1987, the average difference across the same 40 issues was 10 percent, meaning that in 20 years, there has only been an average change of four percentage points. Nor has it been consistently in opposite directions. Rather, Fiorina writes: "One sees a nonideological public moving rightward on some issues, leftward on others, and not moving much at all on still others."
On some issues, Americans prefer more government intervention, on others less. But most of all, "Americans accept conflicting core beliefs and values." Political views are often ambivalent and conditional, open to revision and re-consideration, as opposed to absolute and fixed. For example, four in five Americans are not sure whether life begins at conception or birth.
Americans, on the other hand, are much more divided in their assessments of political figures. George W. Bush, as we know, was the most polarizing figure in American political history. But Fiorina argues that the reviews of Bush are polarizing not because the public is polarized generally, but because Bush was an extreme partisan.
Fiorina also differs from Abramowitz in the definition of the political class. Whereas Abramowitz sees more people reporting trying to convince others to vote one way or another as a sign of more engaged political class, Fiorina notes that the percentage of Americans who work for a party or attend meetings and rallies is still the same as it was in 1952: 10 percent.
However, those 10 percent are quite different today than they were in 1952. This is one of the big stories of Disconnect. In an era gone by, politics was a clubby game, more concerned with material motivations than ideology. Politics was about compromise and bargaining, about taking care of business. It was no place for purists.
But without getting too nostalgic for the smoky and often corrupt backroom politics of a bygone era, Fiorina notes that all this openness and transparency changed the nature of politics. "The great irony," Fiorina writes, "is that after this explosion of openness and transfer of power to the people, turnout in elections fell and trust in government plummeted."
Without party machines to turn out votes and with new sprawling suburban districts to cover, candidates turned instead to special interests and ideological believers who were willing to volunteer and give money because they felt so strongly. A new political class that cared more about being right than actually winning took over the party mechanisms, creating the perfect breeding ground for ideological candidates.
Several demographic changes also led to political sorting. African-Americans migrated to the North and as a result became a more important political constituency. Civil Rights reforms alienated Southern Democrats, freeing the Democrats of their conservative wing and making their caucus more liberal. New Southern Republicans, plus the rise of the conservative Sunbelt, shifted the Republican center of gravity, as did the political awakening of evangelicals.
Meanwhile, as politics became more partisan, it also became nastier. Because the activists who increasingly control the party now feel more is at stake, they became more aggressive - a feedback loop that has left much wreckage in its wake.
Fiorina, like Abramowitz, offers little by way of reform. Instead, Disconnect concludes by laying the blame on deep structural forces that must somehow change on their own:
"The usual institutional reforms are unlikely to do much to lessen the polarization of contemporary American politics. That polarization has deep roots in a variety of social changes that have increased the homogeneity of each party, widened the differences between the two parties, and encouraged politicians to construct electoral coalitions out of group building blocks that are less encompassing and less representative of the broader public than was the case for most of American history."
The optimistic note, however, is that by Fiorina's reading, the American public remains quite moderate, despite the partisan warfare that has been dominating Washington. Without at least a moderate public, it is very hard to build a moderate politics.