Several years ago, Fiorina, Abrams and Jeremy Pope of Brigham Young University put the thesis more colorfully. In “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” (2004), they alleged that most Americans are “like the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the crossfire while left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other.”
On the opposite side of this debate stand scholars such as Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, who in his recent book “The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy” and in his forthcoming “The Polarized Public: Why Our Government Is So Dysfunctional,” contends that polarization is not restricted to party elites but is endemic across the voting public. In his view, congressional polarization reflects the division in popular opinion. “There is no disconnect between elected officials and the voters who put them in office,” Abramowitz writes in “The Polarized Public.” “There is, in fact, a close connection between them. Polarization is not a result of a failure of representation; it is a result of successful representation.”
To support his thesis, Abramowitz cites a transformation in the ideological self-identification of voters between 1972 and 2008, as tracked in surveys by American National Election Studies, on a seven-point scale from very liberal to very conservative. The percentage placing themselves in the middle fell from 35 to 27 percent over the 36-year period. The percentage placing themselves close to the ideological extremes grew from 29 to 46 percent. Abramowitz notes that the shifts would be larger if data going back to the 1950s or ’60s were available.
Polarization of the electorate occurs slowly — it does not abruptly manifest itself as an ideological cleavage, as Matthew Levendusky, a former student of Fiorina’s, has noted in a paper titled “The Microfoundations of Mass Polarization.” He writes that the increase in polarization between 1992 and 2004 was somewhat limited — voters made fairly minor adjustments in their positions. But, he adds, while these changes can seem insignificant in the short term, over the long run they can become a force in public opinion.
While Fiorina and Abramowitz disagree on the scope of polarization, they agree that the policy consequences are problematic at best and detrimental to the public welfare at worst. In Abramowitz’s view, the basic structure of American government is not equipped to deal with polarization. Democrats and Republicans find it nearly impossible to step away from their entrenched positions and come together in the interests of the nation. “Their ideas about what should be done to address the nation’s biggest problems are fundamentally incompatible,” Abramowitz writes.
Fiorina is similarly pessimistic, arguing in “Disconnect” that America’s social evolution has increased the homogeneity within the parties and widened the differences between them, a dynamic that encourages 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 American system of checks and balances is not equipped to deal with extreme polarization because opposing factions can block decision-making. The inability of American institutions to resolve conflict has already led to the evasion of procedures designed to protect minority rights. For example, presidents of both parties and their congressional allies have made use of a once-arcane process known as budget reconciliation that allows major tax and spending bills to escape the filibuster, the most important mechanism to empower minorities in the legislative process (although the filibuster was also used thoughout much of the 20th century to block the extension of civil rights to minorities). And many Republicans in the House were clearly prepared to allow the government to default on its obligations during the debt- ceiling fight last summer — indeed, they relished the prospect.
On the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich has capitalized on conservative frustration with the courts by threatening, if elected president, to abolish sections of the federal judiciary and to order the arrest of judges who refuse congressional subpoenas to explain under oath the reasoning behind controversial decisions. In a polarized system, the demands of the extremes intensify and are often blocked by the relatively moderate judiciary. The courts, then, become an adversary to those seeking to enact radical agendas.
Clearly concerned with the problem of inaction, Abramowitz sees one benefit: As voters become more deeply committed to left or right orthodoxies, they become more interested in the political process and vote in higher numbers. Polarization boosts political participation.
Fiorina, in contrast, believes that the polarization of elites is without redeeming virtue: “Facts are distorted and subordinated to ideology, and party members hesitate to raise a dissenting voice. Mandates for major policy changes are claimed in the basis of narrow electoral victories. And problems continue to fester.” As the 2012 election approaches, Abramowitz catches the hostile tenor of the contemporary electorate. At the same time, Fiorina accurately sees the leaders of both parties mired in a destructive and futile faceoff, hurling ideological missiles at each other across an unbridgeable chasm.
“Disconnect” is a data-rich and superbly researched analysis that will help the engaged voter understand the complexity of polarization as the 2012 election campaign plays out.
Thomas Byrne Edsall
covered national politics for The Washington Post from 1981 to 2006. He holds the Pulitzer Moore chair in public affairs journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”