washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Polarized Politics?

by William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola
Excerpted from Chapter 1, “Delineating the Problem” in Pietro S. Nivola and David W. Brady, eds., Red and Blue Nation? Volume One: Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics (Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and Brookings Institution Press, 2006)
What do people mean when they say that politics in the United States are polarized? Polarized in what sense? How pervasively? The U.S. Congress is more polarized ideologically than it was just a generation ago. In the House of Representatives, ideological overlap between the political parties has all but disappeared, and the rise of “safe” districts with partisan supermajorities has tended to push representatives away from the center. Activists in both parties have long been extremely polarized, and there are indications that the gap between them has widened even more in recent decades.
While there is no evidence that the electorate’s overall ideological balance has changed much over the past three decades, voters are being sorted: fewer self-identified Democrats or liberals vote for Republican candidates than they did in the 1970s, fewer Republicans or conservatives vote for Democratic candidates, and rank-and-file partisans are more divided in their political attitudes and policy preferences. Also, religiosity (not to be confused with the denominational hostilities of the past) has become a telling determinant of political orientations and voting behavior. All else equal, individuals who attend church frequently are more likely to regard themselves as conservatives and vote Republican.
Put simply, in a polarized America most Democratic and Republican voters are, if not increasingly segregated geographically, decidedly at odds over a number of salient policy issues. While the severity of the country’s “culture wars” is overstated, the preponderance of evidence does suggest that some significant fissures have opened in the nation’s body politic, and that they extend beyond its politicians and partisan zealots.
As Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University has observed, polarized politics are one thing, close division or partisan parity quite another. An election may be closely divided without being deeply polarized, as it was in 1960, or deeply polarized without being closely divided, as it was in 1936, or neither, as seems to have been the case in the famous “Era of Good Feeling” between the war of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s arrival on the presidential stage. The conventional wisdom is that the electorate has been both deeply and closely divided during most of the national elections of the past decade. We argue that this proposition is valid to an extent. Its proponents often go on to claim, however, that the interaction between deep and close division is bound to create inertia. But as George W. Bush’s first term demonstrated, a president elected with a minority of the popular vote and working with only a razor-thin margin in Congress could achieve legislative successes even amid polarized politics–at least as long as the majority party was purposeful and unified.
Here is another important distinction: “polarization” is not synonymous with “culture war.” Intense political conflict can occur along many different dimensions, of which cultural issues form only one. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took dead aim at “economic royalists” at the height of the New Deal, his politics polarized American society. But an economic crisis, not a cultural one, was at the root of the polarization.

Polarization in Perspective
A plurality of the U.S. electorate continues to profess moderate political persuasions. In 2004, 21 percent of the voters described themselves as liberals, 34 percent said they were conservatives, and fully 45 percent were self-described moderates.1 These numbers were practically indistinguishable from the average for the past thirty years (20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate).2 Contrary to an impression left by much of the overheated punditry, the moderate middle swung both ways in the 2004 election. Both presidential candidates amassed support from these voters. Fifty-four percent of them went to the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, 45 percent to George W. Bush. In fact, the reelection of President Bush was secured chiefly by his improved performance among swing voters such as married women, Hispanics, Catholics, and less frequent church attendees–not just aroused Protestant fundamentalists.
Nor did a widely anticipated “values” Armageddon materialize over the issue of same-sex marriage. President Bush endorsed the concept of civil unions in the course of the campaign, and about half of those who thought this solution should be the law of the land wound up voting for him. Initiatives to ban same-sex marriages were on the ballot in three battleground states, yet John Kerry still managed to carry two of the three. Political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III carefully examined county-level election returns and discovered an irony: by motivating voters and boosting turnouts, initiatives to ban gay marriage ended up aiding Kerry more than Bush.3
With respect to the most persistent wedge issue–abortion–there have been some unexpected twists as well. In the midst of the continuing partisan schism, a recent analysis shows that Republicans are consistently winning among those voters (more than 60 percent of the electorate) who believe that policy on abortion should be more selective. Republican presidential candidates carried this group in 1996, 2000, and 2004–despite the fact that a clear majority of the group leans pro-choice and prefers that abortion be “mostly legal” rather than “mostly illegal.” The staunchly pro-life Republican Party seems to be persuading millions of moderately pro-choice voters that its positions on specific abortion policies are reasonable.4
And what about the TV maps that depict “red” America clashing with “blue”? They are colorful but crude. Plenty of states ought to be purple.5 There are red states–Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, and Virginia, for instance–that have Democratic governors, just as the bright blue states of California, New York, and even Massachusetts have Republican governors. Some red states, such as Tennessee and Mississippi, send at least as many Democrats as Republicans to the House of Representatives. Michigan and Pennsylvania–two of the biggest blue states in the last election–send more Republicans than Democrats. North Dakota is blood red (Bush ran off with 63 percent of the vote there), yet its entire congressional delegation is composed of Democrats. On election night, Bush also swept all but a half-dozen counties in Montana. But that did not prevent the Democrats from winning control of the governor’s office and state legislature–or stop, we might note, the decisive adoption of an initiative allowing patients to use and grow their own medicinal marijuana.6
To these prefatory observations one more should be added: for all the hype about the ruptures and partisan rancor in contemporary American society, the strife pales in comparison with much of the nation’s past. There have been long stretches of American history in which conflicts were far worse. Epic struggles were waged between advocates of slavery and abolitionists, between agrarian populists and urban manufacturing interests at the end of the nineteenth century, and between industrial workers and owners of capital well into the first third of the twentieth century. Yet what those now nostalgically pining for a more tranquil past remember are the more recent intervals of consensus.
Any serious exploration of today’s political polarities has to be placed in historical context. We have to ask: compared to what? Four decades ago, cities were burning across the United States. A sitting president, one presidential candidate, and the leader of the civil rights movement were assassinated. Another sitting president was driven from office, another presidential candidate was shot, and a hail of bullets felled antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University. George W. Bush is, by current standards, a “polarizing president.” But in comparison with, say, Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, the divisions of the Bush era appear shallower and more muted.
Badly in need of a reality check, popularized renditions of the polarization narrative were subjected to a more systematic assessment a couple of years ago in a book provocatively titled Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. In this intriguing study, rich with survey data, Stanford’s Fiorina and his associates reaffirmed the oft-obscured fundamental fact that most Americans have remained centrists, sharing a mixture of liberal and conservative views on a variety of presumably divisive social questions. Ideologues of the left or right–that is, persons with a Weltanschauung, or whose politics consistently form an overarching world view that tilts to extremes–are conspicuous on the fringes of the two parties and among political elites, but scarcely among the public at large. Indeed, sentiments there appear to be moderating, not polarizing, on various hot-button issues.
Moreover, the authors argued, the moderate consensus seems almost ubiquitous. The inhabitants of red states and blue states differ little on matters such as gender equity, fair treatment of blacks in employment, capital punishment, and the merits of environmental protection.7 Majorities in both places appear to oppose outlawing abortion completely or permitting it under all circumstances, and their opinions have changed little over the past thirty years.
No knowledgeable observer doubts that the American public is less divided than the political agitators and vocal elective office-seekers who claim to represent it. The interesting question, though, is, how substantial are the portions of the electorate that heed their opinion leaders, and thus might be hardening their political positions? Here, as best we can tell, the tectonic plates of the nation’s electoral politics appear to be shifting more than Fiorina and his coauthors were willing to concede.
Even though the mass electorate has long formed three comparably sized blocs (29 percent identifying themselves as Republicans, 33 percent as Democrats, and almost all the rest as independents), the attributes of the Democratic and Republican identifiers have changed. They are considerably more cohesive ideologically than just a few decades ago.8 In the 1970s it was not unusual for the Democratic Party to garner as much as a quarter of the votes of self-described conservatives, while the GOP enjoyed a nearly comparable share of the liberal vote. Since then, those shares have declined precipitously.9 In 2004 Kerry took 85 percent of the liberal vote, while Bush claimed nearly that percentage among conservative voters.
Further, as their outlooks tracked party loyalties more closely, Democratic and Republican voters became far less likely to desert their party’s candidates. As Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels has demonstrated, party affiliation is a much stronger predictor of voting behavior in recent presidential elections than it was in earlier ones.10 In 2004 nearly nine out of every ten Republicans said they approved of George W. Bush. A paltry 12 percent of Democrats concurred. In an earlier day, three to four times as many Democrats had held favorable opinions of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Deepening Disagreements
Of course, the use of the terms liberal and conservative can be squishy–and if, at bottom, there is still not much more than a dime’s worth of difference (as the saying used to go) between the convictions of Democrats and Republicans, the fact that partisans are voting more consistently along party lines says little about how polarized they might be. What counts, in other words, is the distance between their respective sets of convictions.
On the issues that mattered, the distance was considerable. Consider the main one: national security and foreign policy. The Pew Research Center’s surveys found, for example, that while almost seven in ten Republicans felt that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, fewer than half of Democrats agreed.11 In October 2003, 85 percent of Republicans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision, while only 39 percent of Democrats did.12 When asked whether “wrongdoing” by the United States might have motivated the attacks of September 11, a majority of Democrats, but just 17 percent of Republicans, said yes. Democrats assigned roughly equal priority to the war on terrorism and protecting American jobs (86 percent and 89 percent, respectively). By comparison, Republicans gave far greater weight to fighting terrorism than to worker protection.13
Popular support for the Iraq war has sagged since these surveys were taken. Yet, as of March 2006, nearly seven out of ten Republicans still perceived the U.S. military effort in Iraq as going well, while only three out of ten Democrats agreed. Two-thirds of Democrats (but only 27 percent of Republicans) felt the United States should bring its troops home as soon as possible.14 Not surprisingly, fully 76 percent of the electorate saw important differences between the parties in 2004, a level never previously recorded in modern survey research.15
Among so-called active partisans, who represent a nontrivial fifth of all voters, the gap was even more dramatic.16 Reviewing 2004 National Election Study data, Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University report that 70 percent of Democrats, but just 11 percent of Republicans, typically favored diplomacy over the use of force. On major questions of domestic policy, the difference was only a little less pronounced. The issue of health insurance, for example, ranked high for 66 percent of the Democrats, but for only 15 percent of the Republicans.17
Then there is the matter of abortion. Following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, no domestic issue has been more contentious. And no other issue has played a bigger role in mobilizing observant religious voters (a force about which we will have more to say later). A majority of Americans accept abortion under various circumstances. But the majority wobbles when abortion is framed as an absolutely unrestricted right to choose. The persistence of this dichotomy is noteworthy. Fiorina and his colleagues, in fact, provide perhaps the most emblematic evidence of the ongoing rift. When people were asked in 2003 whether abortion should be called an act of murder, 46 percent said yes and exactly 46 percent demurred.18 No doubt, if the question had been directed only at persons who identified themselves as Republican or Democratic loyalists, the percentages would have been even higher, and the underlying passions even more polar.

Redder Reds, Bluer Blues
In assessing these deepening disagreements we must also consider the territorial contours of today’s polarization. The question is of importance because if voters tend to migrate geographically toward like-minded voters, the resulting political segregation of Democrats and Republicans could increasingly lock in their differences: a person’s partisan inclinations seem more likely to deepen and endure if he or she is spatially surrounded by fellow partisans.
According to Fiorina and his associates, no wide gulf separates the residents of Republican-leaning (red) states and Democratic-leaning (blue) states. But states are large aggregates in which the minority party almost always obtains one-third or more of the vote. This raises the question of what constitutes a significant difference among states. Consider some of the data Fiorina himself presents from the 2000 election. In red states, Republican identifiers slightly outnumbered Democrats, but in blue states, Democrats enjoyed an edge of 15 percentage points. In red states, the share of the electorate that was conservative was 20 points larger than the share characterized as liberal. Blue state residents were 15 points less likely to attend church regularly, 11 points more supportive of abortion rights, 12 points more likely to favor stricter gun control, and 16 points more likely to strongly favor gays in the military.19
Using a slightly different definition of red and blue states (namely, states that Bush or Kerry won by at least 6 percentage points), Abramowitz and Saunders find differences in excess of 20 points along numerous dimensions, from church attendance to gun ownership to attitudes on hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.20
There are indications, moreover, that red states have gotten redder and blue states bluer, at least in this sense: presidential vote tallies in more states in recent years have strayed from the national norm. In 1988 there were only fifteen states in which George H. W. Bush won with a vote share greater than 5 percentage points above his national average, and only nine states in which his share was more than 5 points below his national average. Put another way, twenty-six states were within a 5 point range of his 53.4 percent share of the national vote. By contrast, in 2004, George W. Bush carried twenty states with a share of the vote more than 5 points above his national share, in twelve states he ended up more than 5 points below it, and in just eighteen states his share fell within the 5 point range.21
These results are not an artifact of an arbitrary selection of elections. In the election of 1960, which produced a near tie in the popular vote between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, a remarkable thirty-seven states yielded results within 5 percentage points of the national margin. In 2000, another election year with a razor-thin popular vote margin, only twenty-one states ended up within this range. These results do not reflect only the polarizing consequences of George W. Bush’s campaign and style of governance. In the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, only twenty-two states were within 5 points of the national margin, nearly identical to the 2000 result. In fact, the past three presidential elections have produced three of the four most polarized state results in the past half-century. (The Reagan-Carter election of 1980 is the fourth.)22
There also has been evidence of increasing dispersion at the substate level. One way to get closer to developments on the ground is to examine the share of the population living in places where voters sided with one party or the other by lopsided margins. Compare the three closest elections of the past generation. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat incumbent Gerald Ford by a scant 2 percentage points, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties (where one candidate wins by 20 points or more). In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush fought to a virtual draw, 45 percent of voters lived in such counties. By 2004, that figure had risen even further, to 48 percent.23
In 2004 a mere fifty-nine congressional districts went in opposite directions in presidential and House elections. Compare this low figure to 2000, when there were eighty-six such districts, or 1996 and 1992, when there were more than a hundred.24 In 2004 the percentage of states won by the same party in that year’s Senate and presidential races rose to a level not seen for forty years, and the percentage of Senate seats held by the party winning that state in the most recent presidential election rose to the highest level in at least half a century.25

What has happened in the electorate has much to do with how sharply political elites have separated along their respective philosophical and party lines. That separation is not in doubt. In the 1970s, the ideological orientations of many Democratic and Republican members of Congress overlapped. Today, the congruence has nearly vanished. By the end of the 1990s, almost every Republican in the House was more conservative than every Democrat. And increasingly, their leaders leaned to extremes more than the backbenchers have. Outside Congress, activists in the political parties have diverged sharply from one another in recent decades. Meanwhile, interest groups, particularly those concerned with cultural issues, have proliferated and now ritually line up with one party or the other to enforce the party creed. Likewise, the news media, increasingly partitioned through politicized talk-radio programs, cable news channels, and Internet sites, amplify party differences.
These changes, the reality of which hardly anyone contests, raise an important scholarly question with profound practical implications: what are the effects of elite polarization on the mass electorate? One possibility raised by Fiorina and others is that the people as a whole are not shifting their ideological or policy preferences much. Rather, they are being presented with increasingly polarized choices, which force voters to change their political behavior in ways that analysts mistake for shifts in underlying preferences.26 A plausible inference is that if both parties nominated relatively moderate, nonpolarizing candidates, as they did in 1960 and again in 1976, voters’ behavior might revert significantly toward previous patterns. Another possibility is that changes at the elite level have communicated new information about parties, ideology, and policies to many voters, leading to changes of attitudes and preferences that will be hard to reverse, even in less polarized circumstances.
On the one hand, there is no reason to believe that today’s voters are unresponsive to changes in choices that the parties offer. The Democratic Party’s decision to nominate more moderate presidential candidates in 1960, 1976, and 1992 (in the wake of more liberal but failed candidacies) did shift mass perceptions and behavior. On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that as party hierarchies, members of Congress, media outlets, and advocacy groups polarize, so gradually does much of the public. Voters become more aware of the differences between the parties, they are better able to locate themselves in relation to the parties, and they care more about the outcome of elections.27 Abetting people’s receptivity to political cues is the increased influence of education. In 1900 only 10 percent of young Americans went to high school. Today, 84 percent of adult Americans are high school graduates, and almost 27 percent have graduated from college. “This extraordinary growth in schooling,” writes James Q. Wilson, “has produced an ever larger audience for political agitation.”28
Thus far we have discussed issue-induced or partisan shifts among voters with prior positions. But elite polarization has another dimension–namely, its effects on young adults entering the electorate without fully formed preferences and attachments. In an important analysis of 1972-2004 National Election Study data, M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker find evidence that the increasingly polarized parties and their activists tend to polarize young adults whose attitudes, once formed, are likely to remain stable over a lifetime.29 Especially in the case of the young, partisan polarization not only sorts but also shapes basic political orientations and party allegiances.
The cue-taking that has helped fuse ideology with party loyalty at the grass roots, in turn, reinforces the hyper-partisan style of candidates for elective office and their campaign strategies. Given the increasing proportion of the electorate that is sorted by ideology, mobilizing a party’s core constituency, rather than trying to convert the uncommitted, looks (correctly or not) more and more like a winning strategy.30 And that means fielding hard-edged politicians appealing to, and certified by, the party’s base. This electoral connection–and not just endogenous partisan incentives within institutions such as the House of Representatives–may help account for the increasingly polarized Congress of recent decades. And, as Gary C. Jacobson has suggested, it may even account for a tendency of Democrats and Republicans to move further apart the longer they stay in office.31
It would be a mistake, however, to see only one-way causality in the relation between changes at the elite and mass levels. History supports Jacobson’s contention that political elites in search of a winning formula anticipate voters’ potential responses to changed positions on the issues and are therefore constrained to some extent by that assessment. The Republican Party’s southern strategy reflected a judgment that Democratic support for civil rights had created an opportunity to shift voters and (eventually) party identification as well. The Democrats’ transition from a moderate stance on abortion in 1976 to a less nuanced one by 1984 rested on a judgment that this move would attract the better-educated, younger, more upscale voters who had been activated politically by Vietnam and Watergate.32
A feedback loop that mutually reinforces polarized comportment up and down the political food chain has at least a couple of important implications. For one, the idea that self-inspired extremists are simply foisting polar choices on the wider public, while the latter holds its nose, does not quite capture what is going on. While it is possible to distinguish conceptually between polarization and sorting, the evidence suggests that over the past three decades these two phenomena cannot be entirely decoupled. Polarized politics are partly here, so to speak, by popular demand. And inasmuch as that is the case, undoing it may prove especially difficult–and perhaps not wholly appropriate.

1William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, The Politics of Polarization (Washington: Third Way, 2005), pp. 3.
2These numbers are based on exit polls. The National Election Studies (NES) suggest that the percentage of moderates has remained stable over the past three decades, while the percentage of both liberals and conservatives has risen modestly. Complex methodological debates among the authors in this volume cloud the conclusions we feel confident about drawing from these data. Suffice it to say that there has not been a huge swing away from the center since the 1970s.
3Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, “Truth in Numbers,” Boston Review 30 (February/March, 2005): 40.
4Jim Kessler and Jessica Dillon, “Who Is Winning the Abortion Grays?” (Washington: Third Way, 2005).
5Estimates of “purple” states vary considerably according to the methodology employed. Abramowitz and Saunders provide a tally of only twelve, but other estimates suggest a near plurality of states. For example, seventeen states fell into the category according to a preelection analysis that weighed (a) the percentage margin of victory in the 2000 and 1996 election, (b) whether a state voted consistently for one party in the past four presidential elections or swung back and forth, and (c) whether trends in the previous two presidential elections made a state significantly more competitive or less. See Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 2005, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America,” The Forum 3(2). See also Richard S. Dunham and others, “Red vs. Blue: The Few Decide for the Many,” Business Week, June 14, 2004.
6The Montana Medical Marijuana Act won the approval of 61.8 percent of Montana voters, faring 3.5 percentage points better than Bush, according to statewide election data.
7Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2d ed. (New York: Longman, 2006), p. 16.
8Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Democrats Gain Edge in Party Identification,” July 26, 2004. These shares have varied over time, but those in 2004 were almost identical to those in 1987. Some analysts stress that within the three-part division, the fastest growing group has been persons registering as independents or “other.” Even if everyone in this category were a genuine centrist–a big “if”–the main thing to remember is that most registered voters continue to identify as either Democrats or Republicans, and, as we shall show, their views are diverging in a number of important respects. Moreover, in a significant recent analysis, Keele and Stimson show that the share of “pure” independents (voters who do not consider themselves closer to one party than to the other) has fallen by half since the early 1970s, from 14 percent of the electorate to just over 7 percent. More than three-quarters of self-declared independents now admit to being closer to one party than to the other. See Luke J. Keele and James A. Stimson, “Polarization and Mass Response: The Growth of Independence in American Politics,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
9Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 45). A generation ago, party identification and ideology were weakly correlated. Now the two are much more tightly intertwined. See also Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, 1998, “Ideological Realignment in the U.S. Electorate,” Journal of Politics 60(3): 634-52 and “Rational Hearts and Minds: Social Identity as Party Identification in the American Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 2-5, 2004.
10Larry M. Bartels, 2000, “Partisanship and Voting Behavior, 1952-1996,” American Journal of Political Science 44(1): 35-50.
11Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized,” November 5, 2003.
12By December 2003, the percentage of Republicans holding this view rose to 90 percent. The percentage of Democrats went up to 56 percent, before dropping back again later on. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “After Hussein’s Capture . . . ,” December 18, 2003.
13Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq,” August 18, 2004 .
14David Kirkpatrick and Adam Nagourney, “In an Election Year, a Shift in Public Opinion on the War,” New York Times, March 27, 2006. The polling data reported in this article were also based on Pew surveys that queried respondents on whether the war was going “very well or fairly well.”
15For data on this going back to 1952, see the American National Election Studies.
16Active partisans are defined as voters who are engaged in two or more political activities other than voting.
17Abramowitz and Saunders (2005).
18Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, p. 81).
19Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 43-44).
20Abramowitz and Saunders (2005, p. 13).
21Galston and Kamarck (2005, p. 54). Using a different methodology, Abramowitz and Saunders (2005) reach a parallel conclusion. Comparing two presidential elections (1976 and 2004) with nearly identical popular vote margins, they found that the average state margin of victory rose from 8.9 percentage points to 14.8 percentage points, the number of uncompetitive states (with margins of 10 points or more) rose from nineteen to thirty-one, and the number of competitive states (with margins between 0 and 5 points) fell by half, from twenty-four to twelve. Not surprisingly, the number of electoral votes in uncompetitive states soared from 131 to 332. These numbers merely confirm what every contemporary presidential campaign manager instinctively understands: in normal political circumstances, when neither party has suffered a major reversal (a big-time scandal or policy failure, for instance), the actual field of battle has tended to be small and concentrated in the Midwest.
22William A. Galston and Andrew S. Lee; tabulations on file with the authors.
23Bill Bishop, “The Great Divide,” Austin American-Statesman, December 4, 2004. See also Bill Bishop, “The Cost of Political Uniformity,” Austin American-Statesman, April 8, 2004; Bill Bishop, “Political Parties Now Rooted in Different Americas,” Austin American-Statesman, September 18, 2004; Bill Bishop, “The Schism in U.S. Politics Begins at Home,” Austin American-Statesman, April 4, 2004.
24Dan Balz, “Partisan Polarization Intensified in 2004 Election,” Washington Post, March 29, 2005.
25Gary C. Jacobson, 2005, “Polarized Politics and the 2004 Congressional and Presidential Elections,” Political Science Quarterly 120(2): pp. 208-10.
26See Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope (2006, pp. 165-86).
27For evidence and discussion on these points, see Mark Brewer, 2005, “The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate,” Political Research Quarterly 58(2): 219-29; Gary C. Jacobson, 2003, “Partisan Polarization in Presidential Support: The Electoral Connection,” Congress and the Presidency 30(1): 1-36; Donald C. Baumer and Howard J. Gold, “Party Images and Partisan Resurgence,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
28See James Q. Wilson, “How Divided Are We?” Commentary, February 2006, pp. 15-21.
29Laura Stoker and M. Kent Jennings, 2006, “Aging, Generations, and the Development of Partisan Polarization in the United States,” Working Paper WP2006-1, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
30Matthew S. Levendusky, “Sorting in the U.S. Mass Electorate,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, August 31-September 3, 2005.
31See Gary C. Jacobson, 2000, “Party Polarization in National Politics: The Electoral Connection,” in Jon R. Bond and Richard Fleisher eds., Polarized Politics: Congress and the President in a Partisan Era (Washington: CQ Press): pp. 9-30; Jacobson, 2003; Gary C. Jacobson, 2004, “Explaining the Ideological Polarization of the Congressional Parties Since the 1970s,” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 15–18. Importantly, Jacobson’s findings apply to both the House and the Senate.
32Jacobson (2000).

5 comments on “Polarized Politics?

  1. FreeDem on

    The crowd of elephants ignored in that room is stunning.
    The differences are of awareness, not policy among the electorate. Where there is an honest local media, and perhaps a liberal local radio source, the ideals will be little different, but they will vote largely Democratic, and the vote will be more likely accurately counted.(note that the RW radio, and Fox is everywhere, so always an available source)
    In those places where there is GOP control in the newspaper and local television, and there is no alternative to RW radio, the perception of the reality will be much different. Even given that the vote count will be more skewed and there will be more Gerrymandering.
    In Florida the Democratic “Safe” seats win in numbers above 80%, some as high as 95%, while GOP “Safe” seats hover near 60%, and are even lost in situations of extreme news such as the Mark Foley scandal, but not by much.
    Which gets to the point of voter suppression and election fraud. In some areas the count reflects the demographics, while in others the GOP vote exceeds the number of registered voters, or others (particularly minorities) have very high numbers of voters per machine available, but no preference marked for top elections.
    If you measured the votes of those who said that Bush won no elections, or that Saddam was involved in 9-11, you would see a near 100% correlation (though not the reverse questions) but if you looked at the policy preferences of these two “extremist” groups the divide would not be nearly so extreme.
    The “Culture War” is an invention of folks who’s policy preferences are extreme and would not be supported by the vast majority if they knew. The battle is for the awareness of those policy preferences.

  2. william on

    While Galston & Nivola provide an impressive and valid allowance of nuances for why and how Red v. Blue, underpinning all, religiosity, seems to have been lightly considered (especially in blue) as a polarizing factor. Sensitive emotions emerge at the least hint of this factor, not at the intellectual level (blue, again) where religion seems persistently to be a minimal lens, rather, at the individual level where the fate of one’s soul is balanced on a political precipice concocted by operatives eager to take full advantage of the visceral relationship between a person and their immortality. The highest stakes to prey upon at the human level, a soul, when controlled by politics, easily frighten and easily polarize. All else, it seems to me, is secondary, even tertiary in our 21st century US American climate of profit and at-all-cost victory.
    Clearly, religion motivates and manipulates sans politics. So, troubling one’s soul with politics has no equal, in my mind, for fostering influence. Writing “While the severity of the country’s ‘culture wars’ is overstated…” G & N devalue religion’s role in practicing US American politics as if to defuse its affect on Red v. Blue alignments. Arguing that “‘polarization’ is not synonymous with ‘culture war’”, G & N disabuse the notion that they might be. At the individual level, values matter, not so much as to be statistically or intellectually significant when crafting argument, but certainly so when that individual acts on their beliefs and commiserate impulses. I agree with Peter Wiley, who posted “American political analysts may be missing the point about important social and ideological trends in the U.S.” Salient policy issues be damned; religion is the salient policy issue, and at its core, perhaps the deepest running thread among most US Americans.

  3. Nadia Hassan on

    I don’t think you can easily conflate the 1960 with ’76 and ’92 if you’re talking about shifting mass perceptions, because the nation was political landscape was so different after the 1960s and 1970s, esp. because while the race issue existed, the culture war wasn’t salient. And furthermore, Kennedy was quite liberal (think early 1960s) in his campaign on that particular issue.

  4. Jonathan Schwartz on

    You definitely need to read “Polarized America” by Poole, Nolan and MaCartney. I just took a course on polarization from Keith Poole (I’m a poli sci major at UCSD). Poole is famous for developing the DWNominate procedure for measuring congressional polarization.

  5. Peter Wiley on

    Red vs. Blue maybe beside the point.
    In a very interesting book American Backlash Canadian Pollster Micheal Adams (founder of the Environics group of research and communications consulting companies) argues that the most significant political divison in U.S. politics at the moment is not “Red” vs. “Blue” but particpants vs. non-participants.
    He suggests that in many fundamental value terms Republicans and Democrats actually have more in common with one another than either have in common with members of growing group of Americans: those who choose not to be bothered by politics at all or who are pursuaded that politics is a sham of one kind or another.
    Based on research on values in the U.S. from 1992-2004, the book is a though-provoking suggestion that American political analysts may be missing the point about important social and ideological trends in the U.S.
    To do an injustice to a long an detailed argument, Adams finds that Americans are in increasting numbers rejecting the values of tradtional conservatism AND liberalism and moving toward values defined by “intensity [of experince] and thrill-seeking, Darwinism and exclusion [of others], and consumption and status-seeking.” These are not values associated with politely divided electoral politics.
    The book was among the Toronto Globe’s 100 most important books of 2005, and of course is little known or discussed in the U.S. If you want to find a copy you’ll have visit Amazon Canada or other Canadian bookseller.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.