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.


  1. The polarization is more extreme due to the ease with which one can be politically isolated within an “age of information.”

  2. Henry – The question is: polarization among whom? It may be that over time the impact of the “age of information” may filter down to Joe and Jane Sixpack, but so far I don’t see evidence that it is happening.

  3. While it’s easy to demonize the Right with its FOX NEWS and plethora of websites promoting a narrow worldview, the Center and Left are unwilling/unable to counter the narrowness that the Right has embraced and exploited.

    The real status of most people is fear. If one can find a trigger that will serve them, then they win.

    Fear breeds hate.

    Both of these are useful tools in the hands of the game of politics.

  4. not apropos perhaps but where are the people in the street protesting this disgrace? they marched in the 60´s they marched in the 70´s are we going to tumble down with dran with nare so much as a whimper? What has happened to Americans? Polarized does not mean paralyzed!!!! For shame….and she´s back 🙂 Where´s Hillary

  5. Professor, even if we grant you the statistics you cite in your excellent blog, would you agree the close down of the govt. and the debt crisis are exacerbating the polarization in the country?

    Is it somehow different this time?

    How do we get out of this mess?

    Jack Goodman (worried and depressed)

  6. Welcome back. I’m not commenting on the post itself, but the suggestion that the work on the book continues and you just had to comment on Balz’s column. I realize you suggest there will be some more comments. But will the gates close until the book is totally done? As baseball fans yelled before any of us were born, “Say it ain,t so!”

  7. Jack,

    Good questions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, and in my talks that you’ve attended, the causes of polarization at the national level are many (gerrymandering is probably not one of them), and they are not likely to disappear anytime soon. The result, I’m afraid, is that our elected officials will lurch from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. These will always be resolved at the last minute as long as most elected officials fear that the consequences of not resolving them are, electorally speaking, worse than the consequences of reaching a stop-gap resolution. The public, meanwhile, will continue to disapprove, and will throw the current political configuration out of office, replace it with another, only to see the same results. This is one reason why we have cycled through almost every possible permutation of party control of the House, Senate and the Presidency during the last decade.

    When will it end? When some triggering event pushes voters toward one party at the expense of the other, or the parties themselves realign in ways the likelihood of these types of confrontations, or we begin nominating more centrist candidates.

  8. Marty,

    While I certainly won’t be going back to the almost daily blogging frequency that I maintained for the last couple of years, I am going to try very hard to post at least on a weekly basis, particularly if reporters (see Howard Fineman’s latest) continue to blame shutdowns in part on a polarized, culturally divided public!

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