Polarized Pols Versus Moderate Voters?

National Journal

What explains the ever-more-bitter ideological polarization that roils our politics today? Is it a reflection of an ever-more-bitterly polarized public? Or are most Americans relatively moderate and thus poorly represented by their immoderate political parties and elected representatives?

These questions have been the subject of lively debate among political scientists in recent years. Now comes Morris Fiorina, a scholar at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, with a new book announcing its thesis in the title: Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics.

Fiorina is the leading exponent of the view that the public is no less moderate and no more polarized than in the past, and thus is ill-served by fervently liberal and conservative elected representatives and political activists.

The Fiorina book will not end the debate about what he has called "the myth" — and other political scientists insist is the reality — of a deeply polarized electorate. But the author does cite new evidence that our elected representatives cleave more dramatically to the left and right ends of the political spectrum than those they purport to represent. He also helps illuminate the causes of the undoubted polarization of political elites over the past generation while adding some insights, such as why many self-described conservative voters are less conservative than you might think.

Some fundamental points are undisputed. So close to unanimity have Republicans been in opposing President Obama’s major domestic initiatives that "one would have to look as far back as the 1890s to find party-line voting so sharp on the most salient legislative issues of the day," as Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution observed in a recent paper. So internally homogeneous have the political parties become that almost every Republican in Congress is to the right of almost every Democrat. More important, perhaps, the vast majority of Republicans are so far to the right of the vast majority of Democrats in Congress that the moderates who once played a critical role in brokering compromises have virtually disappeared.

And the congressional culture of the 1950s and early 1960s, "where Democrats and Republicans generally treated each other with civility during working hours — and many drank, played poker, and golfed together after hours — is long gone," Fiorina writes.

The disagreements among political scientists focus on whether, as Fiorina argues, the vast majority of voters "appear to be little changed in their moderate orientation from those citizens of a generation ago."

A new book portrays "a relatively moderate electorate" forced to choose between "relatively extreme candidates."

That’s the premise of his thesis that in America today, there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it intends to represent, with "a relatively moderate electorate" forced to choose between "relatively extreme candidates."

Fiorina rests his arguments largely on surveys, including the following.

* The percentage of Republican delegates to nominating conventions who identified themselves as "very conservative" has risen from about 12 percent to more than 30 percent since 1972, and the percentage of "very liberal" Democratic delegates has grown from about 8 percent to nearly 20 percent. By contrast, surveys of the general public show little change in "very conservative" and "very liberal" percentages.

* Surveys of voters’ views on a range of major issues show "a nonideological public moving rightward on some issues, leftward on others, and not moving much at all on still others" between the 1984 and 2004 elections.

* The incendiary issues — including abortion, gay marriage, and gun control — that command so much political energy and media attention fall far down the list when voters are asked what they think are the most important issues facing the country. Meanwhile, despite all the talk of a culture war, Republicans as well as Democrats have become more accepting of homosexuality in general.

* Members of the public express much more ambivalence on divisive issues than do members of the political class. Indeed, Fiorina writes, most voters "may not want a clear choice between a constitutional prohibition of abortion and abortion on demand… between launching wars of choice and ignoring developing threats."

* "Americans are even less ideological than their self-characterizations would suggest," Fiorina adds. He notes that when voters are questioned about specific issues, only one-fifth of those who call themselves conservatives take right-of-center positions on both economic and social issues — while fully one-third "do not actually have conservative policy views" on either economic or social issues. (By contrast, 62 percent of self-identified liberals take liberal positions on both economic and social issues.)

The surprising number of not-really-conservative self-described conservatives also casts doubt on the importance of the long-standing preference for "conservative" over "liberal" in voter self-identifications — 40 percent to 20 percent in a recent Gallup Poll. Apparently, Fiorina suggests, many Americans whose actual views are not very conservative "hear or see the latest liberal silliness and figure, ‘If that’s liberal, I must be a conservative.’ "

Other political scientists, including Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, have written detailed rebuttals of Fiorina’s vision of the electorate.

Nivola said in an interview, "The nation’s political parties are polarized from top to bottom." In a recent paper, he cited polls showing that the gaps between the liberal leanings of most Democratic citizens and the conservative leanings of most Republicans in today’s world are large indeed: 76 percent of Democrats versus only 31 percent of Republicans thought that the government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans; 62 percent of Republicans versus only 25 percent of Democrats opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to help financial institutions from failing; 59 percent of Democrats versus only 36 percent of Republicans thought that we should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment; and 66 percent of Republicans versus only 33 percent of Democrats thought that the U.S. must win the war in Afghanistan.

Nivola and others also cite data suggesting that red states have gotten redder and blue states bluer in recent decades, both in the lopsidedness of their votes for Republican and Democratic candidates and in other measures such as church attendance and attitudes toward abortion, gun control, and other social issues.

The fading force of the divisive convulsions of the 1960s might depolarize our politics somewhat.

To some extent the critiques of Fiorina’s arguments are over matters of degree. "No knowledgeable observer doubts that the American public is less divided than the political agitators and vocal elective office-seekers who claim to represent it," Nivola and William Galston, also of Brookings, concede in their introduction to a 2006 book of essays titled Red and Blue Nation? And more than one-third of Americans call themselves independents and eschew identification with either party.

"The number of deeply committed ideologues in America, though difficult to measure precisely, probably isn’t much larger today than at earlier points in our history, which is to say minuscule," my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein wrote in his 2007 book, The Second Civil War. "What’s unusual now is that the political system is more polarized than the country. Rather than reducing the level of conflict, Washington increases it."

The decline of patronage jobs and other material rewards as a major motivation for political engagement, the increasing importance of party primaries dominated by the most-intense partisans, and the displacement of smoke-filled rooms by "power to the people" activism, Fiorina writes, "had the unanticipated and perverse effect of making American politics less representative." The reason was that "political power and influence were transferred to political activists who were not like most people," and who were less interested in representing the views of constituents than in imposing their ideological "view of a better world on the rest of society."

Demographic changes also drove the polarization of the political parties. These changes included the migration of blacks to the North; the growth and Republicanization of the Sun Belt; the political mobilization of conservative evangelicals; the rise of suburbs; the fading of broad-based associations such as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs as points of contact between representatives and their constituents; and the replacement of these clubs by advocacy groups for causes such as peace, race, environmentalism, feminism, abortion, and gun control plus their conservative counterparts.

And in a "disturbing feedback loop," Fiorina says, those who are most open-minded often withdraw from politics for fear of introducing "conflicts into their relationships with others in their work and social circles."

One result is that politicians focus more on ideology and the demands of their party base than on solving problems. Another is that "disinformation and even outright lies become common as dissenting voices in each party leave or are silenced." All this "makes voters less likely to trust government."

Fiorina is not optimistic that institutional reforms can improve problems so deeply rooted in demographic change. But he does hope that social changes now at work — especially the fading force of the divisive convulsions of the 1960s — might depolarize our politics somewhat.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if more politicians and activists would heed the wisdom of one of our greatest judges, Learned Hand: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."