Are voters as polarized as their elected officials? The question, which has serious implications for the nation, particularly in an election year, has put political scientists at loggerheads. On one side of the debate is the renowned political scientist Morris Fiorina of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, who in his most recent book, “Disconnect,” written with Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College, argues that America’s elected officials and political activists are sharply divided into two ideological camps, but that the essentially moderate and centrist electorate is not.
“In America today, there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it purports to represent,” the authors write. “The political process today not only is less representative than it was a generation ago and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at a minimum no better. The present disconnect is cause for concern and not something that can be discounted as either normal or unimportant.”
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.