Contrary to popular belief, America is not polarized. This is one of many stunning assertions in Morris Fiorina’s new book “Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate.” How can this be true, one might wonder, given the partisan gridlock that we see and the incivility that we hear on what seems like a daily basis? The answer, it turns out, is in the details.
Fiorina’s claim is not only defensible, but practically indisputable, given a key distinction that he makes in his analysis. Namely, Fiorina argues that there is a difference between the political class and the American public. Thus, while the political class has grown more polarized over the past fifty years, most Americans remain moderates or indifferent. While everything that we see and hear would suggest that we are being torn apart, what we the people feel has held and continues to hold us together. Don’t believe me? Let’s dive a little deeper.
When Fiorina talks about the “political class” he is talking about individuals that are actively involved in politics and policy. Specifically, he means elected officials, political donors, and political activists. Without a doubt, these groups have polarized over the past fifty years. Many have seen the chart below, which shows difference between political ideologies of Congress members between the 1960s and the 2000s. A similar trend can be seen here. This trend exists in State legislators as well.
Meanwhile, as shown in the charts below, political activists and donors have also polarized over the past 50 years as ranked on a seven point ideological scale based on polling by the American National Election Studies (ANES). Political activists, in particular, have polarized from an average difference of 1.53 units in 1972 to 3.45 units by 2016.
Given these trends in the political class, how could it be possible that America is not polarizing? The answer is simple: most Americans are not part of the political class. There are an estimated 500,000 elected officials across the United States at the local, state, and federal level, which represents only 0.2% of the total population. Fiorina estimates that political activists and donors represent 5 and 10% of the eligible electorate, respectively. Therefore, the remaining 80% of the eligible electorate are, as Fiorina calls them, “normal people.”
Contrary to the political class, “normal people” have not polarized, as can be seen across a variety of measurements. According to three separate surveys over the past forty years, the percentage of Americans identifying as “Moderate/Don’t Know” has stayed at a relatively constant 45-55%.
Americans continue to be centrists on specific policy experts as well. As seen below, ANES surveys of the American public on a variety of policy issues result in a clear plurality responding as “Moderate/Don’t Know.” Even on particularly contentious policy issues, such as abortion, we see that the American public’s views have remained centrist and constant over the past fifty years. A majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. More extreme views (legal/illegal under any circumstances) have and continue to have support from only 20-30% of the American public.
America is not polarized. So why does it feel that way? Fiorina points to various phenomena, including “exemplification,” in which the media highlights the most controversial viewpoints that do not accurately represent the whole of the American electorate. Additionally, partisans and ideologies misperceive how typical they are within their own party, which leads to a “false consensus.” (This false consensus, along with political sorting, leads to political overreach and, eventually, to the “Era of Tenuous Majorities,” as will be discussed in a subsequent blog post.)
For now, it is important to understand what the polarization problem is and what it is not. America is not polarized. The political class is. Exemplification and the False Consensus lead to a “spiral of silence” where individuals refrain from sharing their views for fear of being ostracized from their group. But there is hope. We, the People, as a general matter, are more nuanced than the political class would have us believe. We still believe in bipartisanship, compromise, and civility. It seems that what is really needed is that we stand up and say this a bit more and a bit louder.
Fiorina has masterfully identified the problem. So the question remains, what are we doing about it?
This article is based off of Morris Fiorina’s article “Has the American Public Polarized?” All statistics and charts are attributable to him. Interested readers should read his book “Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate.”