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.