The Washington Post

In America, polarization is a problem. In Britain, it could be a solution.

Robert Ford is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester and author (with Matthew Goodwin) of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. He is co-author of the Polling Observatory, a regular blog on British public opinion (archives can be found here and here). His twitter handle is @robfordmancs

Political polarization is hurting America. This is the message from pundits on both sides of the political divide: American politics has become angry and tribal. Rational government has become impossible, as even keeping the federal government’s doors open and getting the bills paid has become a titanic struggle. If only America had parties willing to compromise with each other and stand up to the grassroots, the lament continues. Partisan voters on each side would be less tribal, policy would be more rational and responsive, and everyone would be happier. Right?

Not so fast. Across the pond here in Britain, the political trends have run in the opposite direction from those in America since the early 1990s, when the traditional governing parties in Britain — the Conservatives and Labour — elected relatively moderate leaders. The British have been governed for 20 years by pragmatic parties, focused on the center and happy to steal each other’s ideas. Has this made for a contented electorate? Not at all. Turnout in British elections has slumped since this convergence began, as the figure below shows, leading to debate about a crisis in British democracy. Between 1992 and 2001, nearly one in five British voters stopped showing up on polling day, and most have not returned. Trust in politicians and satisfaction with politics have also fallen. Party identification and party memberships have collapsed to their lowest levels in modern history. Growing numbers of voters now either ignore politics entirely, or express their hostility to the mainstream parties by backing the radical new entrant, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). After 20 years of rising polarization, America’s voters hate their politicians. Yet, after 20 years of steady moderation, Britain’s voters seem to hate their politicians too. What is going on?

Turnout in British general elections, 1950-2010
Turnout in British general elections, 1950-2010

Polarization leaves moderate voters without a voice in politics; centrism leaves voters at the extremes without a voice, and similarly unhappy about it, as recent research illustrates. What’s more, centrism may be more of a problem for parties, because political activists tend to hold more extreme views. Moderation may bring parties closer to the average citizen, but it also hollows them out, starving them of the activists and funders they rely on to communicate with voters. All the main British parties have seen a slump in membership and donations over the past two decades, leaving them unable to undertake even basic voter mobilization in many districts.

Political moderation can also result in deep political divisions being neglected. America’s supposed golden age of deal-making moderates, the 1930s-1960s, came about in part due to the willingness of Southern conservative Democrats to adopt moderate economic positions to defend segregation. As Jeff Stonecash argues in an earlier post, current American polarization partly reflects the re-organization of Southern racial and class conflicts back into politics. In Britain, the longstanding conflict is over class alone, and the recent dynamic has operated in the opposite direction. After a series of election defeats, the traditionally working-class Labour party refocused on winning the middle class, and the class conflict which had defined British politics was no longer a central source of party competition. This made perfect strategic sense for Labour, and delivered three successive election victories under Tony Blair. But it came at a price. Turnout slumped, and the share of voters saying they saw no difference between the parties shot up. Such voter dissatisfaction is highest among working class voters, as the figure below illustrates, and has recently risen to all-time highs in these groups, as the voters hit hardest by unemployment, declining real wages and government austerity policies find they have no voice in mainstream politics.

Share of British respondents who strongly agree that ‘people like me have no say in government’ 1986-2012, by social group
Share of British respondents who strongly agree that ‘people like me have no say in government’ 1986-2012, by social group

Britain’s combination of moderate politicians and unhappy voters is also a consequence of differences in the way British and American politics are organized. In both countries, we find a significant section of the electorate–older, white and socially conservative–adopting a “stop the world I want to get off” attitude. These voters are unhappy with the changes of recent decades on issues like immigration, gay rights and race, as well as more recent flashpoints like “Obamacare” in the U.S. and the European Union in Britain. In America, this new political movement has been organized into mainstream party conflict in the form of the Tea Party revolt within the Republican party. In Britain, where party politics is more centrally controlled, the rebels have decamped to a new party, UKIP, which has made a lot of noise but at present lacks representation in the British Parliament. While in America the political establishment has no choice but to reckon with the Tea Party, which now has many supporters in Congress, in Britain politicians are tempted to ignore the UKIP revolt, as the new party has little prospect of winning many seats. Yet ignoring a revolt backed by one voter in ten, including large swaths of Labour’s traditional white working-class base, risks legitimating UKIP’s core argument that the political parties ignore British voters.

The more fragmented British party system also brings a cautionary tale for those advocating the establishment of a centrist third party as a solution to America’s current political polarization. Britain has always had a significant centrist third party, but this prevented neither the polarization of the Thatcher era nor the more recent political convergence. What is more, voters have not rewarded Britain’s centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, for exercising a moderating influence in government. The party’s support has collapsed since it joined the right wing Conservatives in a Coalition government: around 60% of Lib Dems switched away from the party during its first year in government, and the party has had little success trying to woo centrists from the other parties. They now face an electoral bloodbath.

British political moderation has brought many benefits — both governing parties are impressively pragmatic and focused on a common set of goals prized by moderate voters, such as growth, fiscal stability and strong public services. It is quite a change from the ideological and class warfare of the Thatcher years. But this moderation has come at a cost, marginalizing those with more intense political views, and hollowing out the political parties’ activist bases. The major parties’ moderation has also sidelined real conflicts over economic inequality and social class without resolving them, leaving voters with the feeling that politicians are out of touch and unresponsive.

As America grapples with the problems of polarization, centrist politics, perhaps launched by a third party, looks like an enticing panacea. This is an illusion: moderation may solve some problems, but in deeply divided societies like America and Britain, it cannot be achieved without marginalizing many voters. Pushing unresolved conflicts out of the system may produce calmer politicians, but it also produces angrier voters, who may turn against the democratic system which denies them a voice. In politics, everything comes with a price. Moderation is no exception.

Further Reading

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on political polarization. The previous posts are listed below.  -Dan Hopkins

What we do know and don’t know about our polarized politics

American politics is more competitive than ever. That’s making partisanship worse.

Polarization we can live with. Partisan warfare is the problem.

How political polarization creates stalemate and undermines lawmaking

Electing more women to Congress isn’t a solution for polarization

How U.S. state legislatures are polarized and getting more polarized (in 2 graphs)

How ideological activists constructed our polarized politics

Our politics may be polarized. But that’s nothing new.

Our politics is polarized on more issues than ever before

How race and religion have polarized American voters

Can young voters break the cycle of polarization?

Americans aren’t polarized, just better sorted

How politically moderate are Americans?  Less than it seems.

The real extremists are American voters, not politicians

How better educated whites are driving polarization

How our partisan loyalties are driving polarization

Party polarization is making is more prejudiced

Why don’t Americans trust the government? Because the other party is in power.

Are Fox and MSNBC polarizing America?

Why you shouldn’t blame polarization on partisan news.

The media makes us think we’re more polarized than we are.

How to fix our polarized politics?  Strengthen political parties.

Politics stops at the water’s edge?  Not recently.

Polarization in Congress has risen sharply.  Where is it going next?

Our political parties are networked, not fragmented.

Sure, Congress is polarized.  But other legislatures are more so.

Canada is polarizing–and it’s because of the parties.



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