Monthly Archives: October 2013

Big Polarization or Big Papi? Why Howard Fineman is Wrong About America

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Media pundit Howard Fineman begins his Huffpost Politics column today by asking, “Why is America on the edge of a political and fiscal nervous breakdown?”  He goes on to answer his own question by providing, as the essay title neatly summarizes, “15 Reasons Why American Politics Has Become An Apocalyptic Mess”. With the exception of gerrymandering, I think a plausible case can be made that at least 13 of the 15 reasons Fineman cites contribute, at least in part (in some cases a very small part), to the current polarized political climate in Washington. DC. (Despite persistent media claims to the contrary, political scientists don’t find much evidence that gerrymandering contributes to partisan polarization.)  To be sure, Fineman’s essay would be more useful if he provided some relative ranking of the various reasons in terms of their impact on polarization, but on the whole I don’t think he does serious injustice to the topic.

Except for Reason 5.  Under the heading “Two Cultures” Fineman writes: “Americans used to inhabit a world of shared social mores, even if millions of people were coerced into accepting them. Now voters now live in two barely overlapping moral worlds: Secular Metropolitan America and Biblical Traditional America. Americans can spend most of their waking hours enveloped in one journalistic gestalt or another, staring at one cable show/website version of reality or the other. It makes political differences harder to bridge.”

Fineman is not the first to make this assertion, of course; the claim that we are a deeply polarized along cultural and moral lines dates back at least to 1992, when Pat Buchanan used his address during the Republican presidential convention to warn of an ongoing religious and cultural war for the “soul of America”.  In the aftermath of the 2004 election, political wags divided the U.S into a Republican-oriented “Jesusland” and a Democratic-leaning “United States of Canada”.  And, as my last post notes, journalists continue to trumpet the theme of a deeply polarized America today, most noticeably during reporting about the government shutdown.  Fineman is but the latest, but undoubtedly not the last, media pundit to make this claim.

The problem, of course, is that the evidence indicates that Americans are not polarized along party lines – at least not any more than they were five decades ago.  Indeed, if anything, they are perhaps less polarized, particularly when it comes to cultural issues. Here are two charts, courtesy of Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, that show the partisan and ideological trend lines among Americans during the period 1952-2008. Let’s look first at partisanship.partisanship

The data show a similar story for voter ideology.ideology

As you can see, then, the trend lines indicate that the number of Americans who self-identify as independents (including leaners) is on the rise, albeit slightly, across the last five decades, while the portion of self-identified moderates (again including leaners) has remained largely stable. This is hardly the picture of an increasingly polarized people.  We find similar patterns when we ask Americans their views on key cultural issues, such as abortion.

bortionAs you can see, opinions toward abortion have barely budged since Roe v. Wade was decided almost four decades ago.  During that entire period, most Americans support the middle way on abortion rights.

And while Fineman is correct that the cable news shows do present two diametrically different portraits of the political world, the reality is that even the most popular such shows draw proportionally few viewers.  Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox, one of the most popular political talk shows on cable, draws about 3.5 million viewers on an average night.  Rachel Maddow may draw .5 million on a good night. But 12 million viewers watched the season premiere of Duck Dynasty on cable, and about 8 million watched this epic shot by Big Papi:

Polarized? Not among Americans.  And not here in Red Sox Nation.

And really, aren’t they the same thing?


Busting Balz: Are Americans More Polarized?

There have been any number of instances when a media story tempted me to break my self-imposed hiatus from the Presidential Power blog dating back to my last post in January. Each time, however, I’ve told myself to stay focused on writing the White House staff book.

Then Dan Balz wrote this this story in today’s Washington Post and here I am, blogging again. Balz’ thesis is a familiar one among journalists: that the roots of the current budget impasse can be traced back to a deeply divided American electorate.  Balz writes, “Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nation’s capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country. Add to that a faction of conservatives in the House who are determined to disrupt business as usual and the current stalemate in Congress becomes almost unavoidable. The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago.”

Now, to Balz’ credit, he sometimes seem to believe that this deepening polarization afflicts mainly activists in both parties.  Had he stated this more clearly, and stuck to this line of argument, I’d still be writing my book instead of this blog post.  Alas, he goes further to suggest most voters are increasingly polarized as well.  As evidence, he notes the increased incidence of straight party voting in national elections: “Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data … 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.  The clear implication is that voters are increasingly polarized along party lines.”  Balz finds a similar trend in voting in House and Senate elections.

Balz is correct that there has been a decline in cross-party voting. But, as Morris Fiorina has been arguing for some time (see here and here) this is not necessarily evidence that rank-and-file voters are growing more polarized.  Instead, it reflects what Fiorina calls “party sorting.” By this Fiorina means that a variety of trends (I will discuss these in a separate post) have produced national parties that are more ideologically homogeneous than they were even two decades ago.  Put another way, among elected officials we see a declining number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.  Significantly, that process of party sorting has occurred mainly among party activists; the rank and file voters, on the other hand, remain mostly clustered closer to the center of the ideological spectrum.   As evidence, note that the number of people who self-identify as Democrats/Independents/Republicans and liberals/moderates/conservatives has not changed much in the last three decades.  As a result, faced with two increasingly homogeneous albeit more ideologically extreme choices among parties, moderate voters have less incentive to split their vote. In Fiorina’s words, “[I]f all the Democratic candidates on the ticket are liberals, and all the Republican candidates are conservatives, there is much less reason to split your ticket or vote differently from election to election than if each party’s candidates hold a variety of positions.”

In short, the evidence suggests the reason for the increase in party line voting among the rank and file that Balz cites is not that voters are more polarized – it is that their choices are.

Longtime readers know I have been pounding this drum for some time, but apparently many journalists refuse to follow the beat. This is perhaps not surprising – journalists thrive on playing up controversy and discord because these topics are inherently more newsworthy. But it is not just journalists – some political scientists agree with the Balz thesis that Americans are increasingly polarized.  Accordingly, I want to spend the next few posts discussing the evidence on both sides of the argument.

Label this series: Busting Balz.