The Washington Post’s Dan Balz posted this piece yesterday in which he tries to make sense of what appears to be contradictory evidence regarding whether Americans are becoming more polarized or not. Balz notes, correctly, that in a recent survey Gallup recorded a record high number of Americans – 42% – self-identify as independents. The number of self-identified Democrats and particularly Republicans, meanwhile, is on a downward trend.
But then he notes a seeming counter trend: “Voting behavior tells a different story. In recent elections, at least nine of every 10 people who identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats — or who say they are independents but lean toward one party or the other — vote for the candidate of their party down the ballot. In 2012, only about 11 percent of voters said they cast split tickets. The percentage of true independents may be only about 10 percent of the electorate.”
By now, regular readers should recognize that this seeming contradiction is not a contradiction at all – instead, the data present two sides of the same party sorting coin. Rather than becoming increasingly polarized along partisan lines, Americans are still mostly clustered in the ideological middle, as reflected in the Gallup results showing 4-in-10 self-identifying as independents. However, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, the parties are also better sorted ideologically. So when moderate voters who may lean in one direction or the other are forced to choose from among two partisan candidates, those choices are increasingly going to break down along party lines as more people view the parties as either purely liberal or purely conservative. Again, and at the risk of kicking a neighing nag, people aren’t more polarized – they are just better sorted into either party.
Balz misses this point and instead spends much of the rest of his column drawing on the Pew data to buttress his claim that “The trend toward polarized politics is well documented.” As you know, of course, it is not – indeed, the evidence suggests precisely the opposite conclusion. Balz, as did many of those who reported on the Pew findings, mistakes signs of growing ideological consistency among some American as proof that they possess more polarized political views. By now I trust you recognize the difference, but see here if you want a refresher.
Near the end of his column, however, Balz does make one very important observation, drawing on input from political scientist Gary Jacobson, that addresses a question I am often asked by students. If so many Americans are clustered near the ideological center, why don’t candidates build on that fact to form a centrist-leaning party? One answer is that moderates tend to be less politically engaged. Moreover, as Jacobson notes, centrist-leaning voters often do not have ideologically uniform views on which to construct a party platform. Instead, they are much more likely to shift their views, and to swing from one party to the other, depending on political context and available choices and candidates. We saw that in 2008, when independents went solidly for Obama, only to turn against the Democratic party in the 2010 midterms.
Perhaps the best way to see that Americans remain solidly clustered in the ideological middle is to look at their views on specific policy issues. As we shall see, when asked to choose among policy options, most Americans on most issues stake out rather centrist views. I’ll take on that challenge tomorrow.
Meanwhile, a quick word of thanks to all of you who offered great ideas regarding the Christian Science Monitor/Presidential Power logo. Some of the better suggestions included: Air Force One; Mt. Rushmore (one version had it painted green to represent Vermont); the Oval Office desk (adorned with a “the buck stops here” plaque); the Presidential Seal; and a silhouette of a famous president. (Here I’m partial to one of FDR, with his cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle!) In the end, the CMS editor like the idea proposed by Olivier Knox: a graphic of Article II of the Constitution which, as you know, outlines the executive powers. It will look something like this, although the CMS graphic team is working on the final version.
Olivier wins the “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt. Tradition dictates that he is required to send us a photo of him wearing the shirt, preferably in some presidentially-themed context, (which shouldn’t be hard for Olivier.) Here is some inspiration, if Olivier needs it:
Thanks again for all your suggestions, and have a great Sunday!