Fall 2005
Editor's Introduction

PDF Version

America in Red and Blue

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.

         Much recent commentary has characterized the United States as a polity deeply riven by a clash of culture and values between conservative, red state Republicans and liberal, blue state Democrats. Many appear to believe that Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has sunk roots in American soil. And it must be said that evidence to support this perspective has been ready at hand, especially in the aftermath of the 2000 election. A cliff-hanging presidential election, a Senate divided in half, a narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives – these electoral outcomes fit within a pattern of narrow partisan division of both the electorate and the government that has prevailed for a decade.1 The slightly increased Republican majorities resulting from the 2004 election do little to alter the impression of deep-seated division. That impression is reinforced when we consider patterns of voting in the Congress, where we find partisanship at levels not witnessed in over a hundred years. Add to these measurable indicators the coarseness of our current political discourse, the passionate feelings aroused by hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and the place of religion in the public square, and we have a robust template for a divided America.
        Challenging this received wisdom is Professor Morris P. Fiorina, who in October presented the 2005 Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture in Representative Government at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Fiorina, the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author or co-author of nine books and dozens of articles and book chapters on the basis of which he has come to be regarded as an innovative and at times iconoclastic political scientist. It is of little surprise, then, that he would rise to challenge the prevailing consensus. His book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, now in revision for a second edition, arrays an arsenal of evidence to challenge the image of a divided and antagonistic America.2
Here, he offered three lectures under the general title, “The Great Disconnect : The Breakdown of Representation in Contemporary America.” In the first lecture, “The People v. the Political Class,” he renewed and extended his argument that the American people are not widely or deeply divided, even on the hottest of hot-button issues such as gay rights and abortion. Instead, Fiorina argues, it is the political activists and elites who are at each other’s throats, as an increasingly disaffected public watches from the sidelines. His second lecture, “Institutional and Social Roots of the Disconnect” sought to explain how this sorry state of affairs has come to pass. In Fiorina’s view, our electoral and governmental institutions have been hijacked by party activists. The accessibility and transparency that offer so much promise to American democracy have been turned to the purposes of self-interested and ideological elites. What is to be done about this? In his third lecture, “How Bad is the Disconnect? Can Anything Be Done?” Fiorina discusses political reforms, including mandatory voting, aimed at increasing more broad-based public participation. If the typically moderate American voter can become engaged or re-engaged in the political process, perhaps partisans will once again have to compete for their votes.
        Unsurprisingly, Professor Fiorina’s lectures spawned considerable discourse among students, faculty, and the general public. If consensus appeared to emerge on any point, it was a shared sense of revulsion at the tone and character of American politics today. No one stood up and said, “Isn’t this partisanship great!” This alone lends credence to Fiorina’s basic claim: these average Americans seemed more civil than much of the prevailing political discourse. Still, questions arose about the Fiorina thesis.
        Who, after all, is a partisan? To stress his point, Professor Fiorina draws a distinction between “partisans” and “normal people.” The Oklahoma audience regards itself as being pretty normal and generally civilized; yet many would also regard themselves as strong partisans and some as party activists. There are, of course, different ways of defining normalcy. From a purely statistical point of view, abnormal cases are the real outliers, occupying perhaps the 5 percent at either extreme of a distribution. Fiorina offered evidence of ideological self-placement on a 7-point scale, and indeed, it produces outliers of less than 5 percent on either end. Most people are, of course, normal in the statistical sense. We may still wonder if among them there are not large cohorts of partisans situated at some remove from the center who, nonetheless, dominate party politics. Fiorina offered an interesting way of conceptualizing this group. Among the 202 million eligible voters in 2004, 122 million voted. Among these, Bush won about 62 million votes and John Kerry 59 million. These figures may be compared to the roughly 18 million persons who saw Fahrenheit 911 or the roughly 16 million who listen to Rush Limbaugh each week. It seems likely that the number of real activist partisans is closer to the Michael Moore/Rush Limbaugh audience than to the total of voters for Bush and Kerry. It is these voters who are apt to be most polarized, comprising in each case (Moore-Kerry; Limbaugh-Bush) roughly a third of the number of votes that Bush and Kerry respectively received.
        If, by assumption, we say that the polarization occurs among the roughly 30 percent of the electorate that lies at the margins (15 percent on either end), led perhaps by smaller cohorts of party activists, then that leaves a substantial group in the middle, comprising the remaining 70 percent of the electorate. This raises an important question, however. Who are these people? In the old days, the middle of the electorate were regarded as “moderates,” “centrists,” and “swing voters.” V.O. Key argued that they included the “attentive public,” the roughly 10 percent of the electorate who paid close attention and whose votes were up for grabs.3 Charles Hyneman used the term “responsible electorate” to describe the same group.4 The middle of the pack includes voters who shop among candidates and parties based on some rational consideration of public policy. Because, according to Anthony Downs, the electorate was normally distributed, this key voting block decided elections and the candidates and parties would seek to appeal to them, thus moderating their policies.5
        Fiorina’s argument seems to accept the underlying claim of the swing voter theory, that most Americans are centrist. Unlike times past, however, these centrist voters cannot find a candidate or party to support. They have the choice of the Democrats and the Republicans, but these two great umbrella parties have become so dominated by activist extremists that they no longer appeal to centrist voters, who must hold their noses and vote for the candidates and parties that are marginally more appealing. Thus, the first-past-the-post electoral system now pulls the voters away from the center, rather than pulling the parties and candidates toward it.
        What might be done to remedy this situation? In general, Fiorina favors reforms that might have the effect of increasing participation in the electoral process. If the problem is that the process has been hijacked by party activists, then the solution is for it to be taken back by normal people. Normal people come in two categories: non-voters and disaffected centrist voters. As to the non-voters, any steps that might encourage their participation in the process would be helpful. It is by now well established that the United States lags behind other liberal democracies in voter participation. The low rate of voter turnout in America seems to have a lot to do with procedural and practical impediments to voting. The American voter has to get registered, find the polling place, understand and execute ballots that are often confusing (or alternatively go to a lot of work to vote by absentee ballot), and so forth. And why, after all, do we vote on Tuesdays?6
Tinkering with the mechanics of voting offers a set of remedies to the problem of non-participation. Of course many countries deal with that problem more straightforwardly by having mandatory voting. What would happen if, perhaps by implementing mandatory voting, non-voters are drawn into the political arena? While not specifically embracing mandatory voting, Fiorina suggests that it might have a leavening effect on our politics. Parties would no longer play primarily to their base voters (the partisans and activists on either extreme). Instead, they would have to move to the center to capture the votes of the new participants.
        Is there any reason to think that this is what would happen? During that part of my life in which I have paid some attention to politics, I have witnessed on more than one occasion expressions of faith that the expansion of the active electorate would transform politics. Barry Goldwater was certain that there was a “hidden” conservative vote awaiting his call to action. The 1964 election put that idea to rest. In the 1960s and 1970s, psephologists claimed that there was a “silent” majority waiting to usher in a new conservative era.7 Then, the Democrats swept to huge majorities in the Congress and Jimmy Carter was elected president. Next, there was a national debate over enfranchising citizens age 18-20. This new influx would help the Democrats. That did not happen. Finally, motorvoter would enable the working poor to enter the election lists with, as it appears, little effect. The search for new and different voters is the political equivalent of supply-side economics; if you build it, they will come. But who are they?
        So much for the non-voters. The second category includes people who do vote, or at least who want to vote, but do not like the choices they are given. These disaffected centrist voters reside, like everybody else, in some congressional district. But only a few of them live in congressional districts that will offer them any meaningful choice in congressional elections. Senate and gubernatorial elections are sometimes more competitive, but in most states presidential elections are not. In the 2004 election I was unable to determine that my vote had any chance of making any difference in any election on the ballot, with perhaps one exception, a U.S. Senate race that, until the end, looked pretty close.
        Since spatial theory posits a normally distributed electorate, we might expect that the natural response of a political process that has been hijacked by partisan extremists on the left and right would be to produce a third party to occupy the middle ground. Given the fact that ballot access is controlled under state laws by the two major parties, the prospects of a nascent third party movement appear dim. The enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law has only served to make them dimmer by prohibiting soft money contributions to political parties. An alternative suggested by Fiorina is the emergence of a centrist candidate from within the ranks of one of the two major parties. The path through the party primaries remains uphill for any candidate with credible centrist appeal. We are not going to redraw state lines or abolish the electoral college, and a new third party seems an unlikely prospect; but we could do something about congressional redistricting. Fiorina demonstrates nicely that the way congressional district lines are cut can have a dramatic effect on the choices offered to voters, and he believes that the two political parties have conspired to draw districts that insulate incumbents of both parties from effective challenge from outside the party ranks. The incentive of members of the House is, then, to play to the party base. This has the effect of polarizing the party caucuses in the House, with safe-seat Democrats and Republicans living in two distinct and ideologically distant worlds.
        Redistricting reform is offered as a step to mitigate partisanship by empowering swing voters and encouraging candidates to move toward the center. Unfortunately, there appears to be little popular appetite for such reforms, as witnessed by the results of redistricting reform ballot initiatives in Ohio and California in November 2005.
        Spatial analyses of voting are, in general, predicated upon an electorate distributed along a single, ideological dimension, from liberal to conservative. Of course, political life appears more complex than this. Citizens are concerned about a variety of issues, and a voter may be liberal or conservative on some issues and not on others. For example, a person may favor strong government regulation of business (a liberal position) and yet side with the moral conservatives on some social issues. Views on foreign policy might track along a path quite different from views on domestic policy. In Culture Wars? Fiorina analyzes the situation in both one and two dimensions, the first the basic left-right ideological continuum, and the second a separate moral dimension. He is able to show that, in 2000, candidates Bush and Gore positioned themselves on both issue dimensions, in contrast to 1964, when Johnson and Goldwater were basically positioned on a single, liberal-conservative dimension.
        This suggests that the electorate is typically cleaved in more than one way. At a minimum, we would expect to see voters taking into consideration the economy, foreign policy/national security, and social issues. In 2004, immediate post-election interpretations stressed the centrality of the social issue (moral) dimension in determining the election’s outcome. In exit interviews 22 percent of the voters said that moral issues were the most important to them and among such voters, 80 percent voted for Bush. Subsequent analyses called this interpretation into question. It turns out that 26 percent of voters had stressed moral issues in 2000 and about the same number in 1996. In both of those elections the Democratic candidate carried the popular vote. Instead, the 2004 election seems to have swung on the foreign policy/national defense dimension. Bill Clinton’s “soccer moms” became the “national defense moms” of 2004 because President Bush was able to link the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq in the minds of many voters.
        These analyses actually serve to buttress Fiorina’s argument. They indicate that some voters are able to lay aside their general ideological proclivities on moral and economic dimensions and cast votes based on their perceptions of national security and national interest. The analyses also suggest a more complicated issue space, one best represented by a sphere intersected by several dimensions in which candidates would position themselves so as to build a winning coalition among a diverse group of voters motivated by a number of issue concerns.
        What, then, of the argument that the political process has been hijacked by party activists? Here, it is useful to differentiate the primary and general elections. The image of George Bush and John Kerry searching for the best perch inside a sphere with multiple issue interfaces is simply a more sophisticated version of Richard Nixon’s old axiom that a candidate should run to the party base in the primary and then scoot to the center in the general election. An ability to do this depends upon the tolerance of the party base, on the one hand, and the agility of the candidate on the other hand. Bill Clinton had a party base that was, on the whole, willing to forgive his policy and personal transgressions, and he was plenty agile. George W. Bush, who has defined the politics of the twenty-first century so far, is a less flexible candidate operating with an inflexible party base.
        So, it seems possible that we must search for the solution to Fiorina’s great disconnect not in the general election, where the middle may prove evanescent, and instead within the two parties themselves. And perhaps not in the presidency, but in the halls of Congress. And perhaps not in the number of voters, but in how they are arranged in congressional districts. And perhaps not to voters at all, but to the manner in which their perceptions are shaped and at times distorted by a political system that functions more like Madison Avenue than Main Street.
        This issue of Extensions offers elaborations upon Fiorina’s topic and theme. The clearest indicator of the increasing partisanship in the Congress is the D-Nominate score compiled by Howard Rosenthal and Keith T. Poole. In his article “The Decline and Rise of Party Polarization in Congress During the Twentieth Century,” Poole summarizes the main empirical trend that the D-Nominate scores have identified, tracking literally millions of congressional votes over two centuries of experience. Poole makes two key arguments. The first is that, over time, congressional voting behavior can be reduced to one main dimension and one historical exception. The main dimension is a simple liberal-conservative continuum (based on attitudes toward the government’s relationship to the economy) to which the voting behavior of members of Congress can be reduced. The exception is a deviation based on the interrelated variables of race and region, which during the middle of the twentieth century led to a decline in partisanship as the southern Democrats voted more conservatively on civil rights issues.
        Poole’s second argument is that the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s has led over time to realignment in that region, and the Republican Party has emerged as the dominant force. This realignment has homogenized the two parties, leaving the Democrats more monolithically liberal and the Republicans more monolithically conservative. The result is, quite naturally, a return to more partisan and polarized voting patterns, now at the highest levels since the late nineteenth century. If Poole’s arguments are correct, then what today may appear as an abnormal trend toward polarization among partisans and political activists may in fact be simply a return to “normal” patterns of partisan polarization in a polity that, in the end, separates along a uni-dimensional ideological divide.
        Sarah Binder’s work has focused on the effects of partisanship on the capacity of the Congress and the presidency to address issues of major national concern. In her article, “Elections and Congress’s Governing Capacity,” she assesses the relationship between united and divided control of the government and the propensity of the Congress toward gridlock. She demonstrates that there are in fact two variables that affect the ability of the Congress to legislate. The first is unified or divided control of the government. The second is the extent of ideological (partisan) polarization in the Congress itself. Congress functions most efficiently with unified party control of the presidency and both houses of Congress as well as unified, if ideologically polarized, parties. It functions least well under conditions of divided party control of the presidency and Congress and ideologically cohesive parties. In the face of divided party control of the government, however, Congress has demonstrated an ability to do its work if, and only if, the two parties are ideologically moderate. For the Congress to function well, it needs a center.
        Binder’s data, as reported here, indicate a trend of increased deadlock through the 1990s. The line in Figure 2 plays ping-pong, but its trend is up. As she notes, President Bush promised to seek center ground but has ended up governing from the right in, rather than from the center out. This has certainly contributed to increased polarization in the Congress during his administration. But has the Congress been able to govern? While Binder does not present data from the Bush 43 administration, I would guess that her measure of deadlock would show a reasonably efficient Congress over the past five years. If so, this would be due almost entirely to the cohesiveness of congressional Republicans and not to the presence of any common ground between Republicans and Democrats. At a 2003 symposium on the speakership co-sponsored by the Carl Albert Center and the Congressional Research Service, Speaker Hastert indicated that it was his obligation to “get the job done” by governing the House through and by the “majority of the majority.”8 This approach bodes better for productivity than for comity.
        Binder’s conclusion is well worth pondering relative to Fiorina’s argument. Elections have produced a polarized Congress even within a united government. Congress has become more deeply divided, even when it has been able to enact Republican legislation, and the several legislative achievements the Republican majority has been able to claim have come packaged with a decline in institutional trust that will debilitate the legislative process in the long-term. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to be found at its own source, in an electoral process that has produced political elites whose ideological commitments seem regularly to trump their institutional obligations.
Keiko Ono addresses a question that has become central to many analyses of the current partisan divide, congressional redistricting. The “redistricting thesis,” as she labels it, argues that both parties have been complicit in creating districts friendly to incumbents, with the effect of fostering increased partisan polarization in the House. Fiorina clearly thinks there is something to this argument. But is redistricting to blame for the partisanship we now observe?
        To address this question, Ono examines the linkage between well-observed phenomena. We know that there has been manipulation of district boundaries to create safe seats (A). We do see that there are fewer competitive House districts (B). We do observe that there is increased party polarization in the House (C). The empirical question is this: is the drawing of district lines the cause of either the decrease in competitiveness in districts or the increase of partisanship in the House? Does (A) cause either (B) or (C)? If this were so, we would expect to see few if any competitive districts, and we would expect to see that the members representing those districts are more centrist and less partisan than their safe-seat counterparts. To the contrary, we observe that there are a substantial number of districts “in the middle” and that the persons representing these districts are just about as polarized as their safe-seat party brethren. If so, then factors other than district lines must be in play. A search for those factors would, Ono thinks, lead to a closer examination of the parties themselves, rather than the districts their members serve. The parties pull no matter what the shape of the districts.
        Morris Fiorina’s “great disconnect” posits that our system of representation has malfunctioned. The articles in this issue of Extensions assess some of the reasons why this may have happened, and suggest the need for something to be done about it. Remedies to our current indispositions will not come about easily or soon. The first step lies in a more widespread recognition that the problem exists; the next step will be a developing determination on the part of politicians and policy makers to do something about it. The “season of ill will” to which Speaker Jim Wright referred in announcing his resignation from the speakership has become an acrimonious era. Until our elected leaders place the interest of the country and the vitality of its institutions ahead of the pursuit of partisan advantage, it is likely to continue.

    1.  For example, Michael Barone, “The 49 percent Nation,” National Journal, June 8, 2001.
    2.  Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson-Longman, 2005).
    3.  V.O. Key, The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting, 1936-1960 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).
    4.  Charles S. Hyneman, Popular Government in America (New York: Atherton Press, 1968).
    5.  Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper, 1957).
    6.  As with so many other aspects of our life that we take for granted, such as summer recess from school and eating lunch at noon, the Tuesday election appears to have been designed to serve the convenience of farmers who no longer exist.
    7.  Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, The Real Majority (New York: Coward-McCann, 1970).
    8.  Dennis Hastert, “Reflections on the Role of the Speaker in the Modern Day House of Representatives,” The Cannon Centenary Conference: The Changing Nature of the Speakership (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).


Table of Contents| |Editor's Introduction| |Special Orders| |
  |Rothbaum Lecture| |News| |Announcements| |Other Issues of Extensions |

HOME| |Contact Us|

|Teaching & Research| |Public Outreach| |Congressional Archives| |Graduate Fellowship|

This page is best viewed at a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels.
Copyright, The Carl Albert Center