Now that the battle over the Debt Ceiling is settled (at least until Congress comes back from recess) we are once again treated to the usual chorus of voices bemoaning how polarized America has become. As such, I feel compelled to once again dispell the myth that America is a polarized nation.
As I argued during the healthcare battle, after the Gabbie Giffords shooting, and prior to the 2010 midterms, Americans are not polarized (at least no more polarized than at any point in the last 40 years), but our two political parties are very polarized - dominated by ideological and issue activists who do not represent the beliefs of the larger electorate.
Since the 1960s and the end of the Democratic Party’s dominance of the New Deal Era, American politics has become far more competitive. Democrats lost their solid hold on the South and Republicans lost their hold on the North East. Only 7 states had divided government in 1954, in 2007 that number stood at 23 states. With few exceptions, either party has fair shot at winning statewide elections in most states. Control of Congress and the White House has bounced back and forth between the two parties. The parties have responded to this era of competition by becoming ever more partisan and polarized.
A recent study by political scientist Daniel Coffey determined that there is a direct and positive correlation between party competition and party ideology. As a state becomes more competitive between Republicans and Democrats the respective parties become ever more conservative and liberal. V.O. Key hinted at this in 1956 when he argued that competition would force parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice. Additionally, as competition increases the parties come to rely more heavily, not on the mean, median, or moderate voter, but rather on the more committed and activist voter. This means liberal activists for Democrats and conservative activists for Republicans. This has the effect of pushing the parties ever farther to the extreme.
As the agendas of the two political parties became ever more divergent after the 1960s Americans began to "sort" more neatly into one party or the other, a phenomenon known as party sorting. As the Democratic Party became more liberal and the Republican Party more conservative, liberal Republicans left the party and became Democrats or Independents and conservative Democrats became Republicans or Independents. The parties polarized, the public did not.
In fact, there has been precious little change in the last 30 years with regard to the share of Americans who identify as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal. Rather conservatives no longer feel comfortable in the Democratic Party and Liberals are no longer comfortable in the Republican Party - Moderates appear to be less comfortable with both parties and that explains why Independent voters have emerged as the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. As a result of this sorting, the Republican Party became more homogenously Conservative and the Democratic Party more homogenously Liberal. So the distribution of Liberals, Conservatives, and Moderates within the the two parties has changed significantly while the distribution of Liberals, Conservatives, and Moderates within broader electorate has changed very little.
The electorate is no more polarized now than in 1970, 1980, or 1990 - but the parties are. So of course 90 percent of Republicans vote Republican and 90 percent of Democrats vote Democrat and Presidential approval correlates to party affiliation, and Democratic members of Congress have become more Liberal and Republican members of Congress more conservative. Meanwhile, Moderate voters tend to split their support between the parties, but also vote at lower levels - likely a result of feeling ill-represented by either party. All of this is a natural byproduct of party sorting, but party sorting is not the same as polarization.
Though some scholars (especially, but not limited to, Alan Abramowitz) have advanced the theory that this growing polarization among elected officials is in fact reflective of a polarized public, there is in fact little evidence that the mass public has become polarized. Rather the polarization has occurred among committed political activists and the interest groups they support – a relatively small share of the electorate.
This is evident in Figure One, panel A shows the self-identified ideological orientation of the general electorate at three points 1972, 1994, and 2008. Although the distribution has shifted over time, the distribution remains normal with most voters amassed in the center as Moderates. Panel B is limited to those members of the electorate who indicated that they had worked for a campaign and given money to a candidate – I define these voters as party activists. Among these activists, a clear bimodal distribution is evident with the peaks of the distribution to the left and the right of moderation.
According to political scientist Anthony Downs in a winner-take-all election system coupled with two dominant parties (as in the United States) the parties will adopt positions that are ideologically attractive to the greatest concentration of voters.
The distribution of the American electorate (in the broadest sense) is unimodal which, according to Downs, should promote more moderate parties as they compete for the median voter. But Downs’ theory further suggests that if the electorate was polarized into two distinct voting blocs, one left of center and one right of center, the parties would “diverge toward the extremes rather than converge on the center. Each gains more votes by moving toward a radical position than it loses in the center (p. 143).” Steven Hill writes "one of the defining characteristics of a winner-take-all system is that it promotes adversarial politics so that on a whole host of issues it is painfully obvious that the overriding agenda for both major parties is... to stake out positions vis-a-vis the other side."
In the 1960s Republicans exploited several emerging schisms in the ranks of the Democratic Party's coalition in order to become competitive - schisms revolving around national security, welfare spending, and policies with regard to race relations. The party defined itself by being what the Democratic Party was not. Over time both parties increasingly defined themselves by being the antithesis of the other party - this is why there can be no middle ground on isues ranging from abortion, entitlement spending, taxes, environmental regulation, healthcare reform - each party's identity is inextricably linked to being the mirror image of the other party.
This led to party sorting, internal partisan homogeneity, and the bimodal distribution of the engaged voters evident in Figure One. The distribution of the most engaged and activist elements of the electorate, those most likely to participate and vote in elections, is bimodal which has resulted in two polarized parties and the system now feeds off of that bimodal distribution. So long as the more Moderate members of the general electorate remain less engaged there is little incentive for either party to moderate and pursue Moderate voters; rather to do so would risk alienating more committed activist party members. So long as neither party moderates and pursues more Moderate members of the electorate there is little incentive for Moderate voters to become more engaged – a self-reinforcing cycle exists.
The increased electoral competition between the Democratic and Republican parties, in the current era, has had a significant impact on public opinion, partisanship, polarization, and the institutions of governance. As described by Congressional scholar Norm Orstein the present era is “an extended era of close partisan margins, which gave rise to high-stakes legislative politics and sharply reduced incentives for lawmakers to work across party lines to solve problems.”
The only hope for restoring moderation, compromise, and good government - for breaking the hold on the current system of partisan activists - is for the vast and unengaged middle to re-enter the game and wrest control from the ideologues. Simply chosing between the tweedle-dee Democrats and the tweedle-dum Republicans will not suffice. Rather the current party system must be brought down.