The Myth of the Polarization of the American Electorate

In their recent Washington Post article, Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University and Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College discuss the widespread claim that the American electorate has become increasingly polarized.

Fiorina and Abrams explain that, while the US political class has become demonstrably polarized, there is little evidence that today's electorate is substantially different from what it was in the 1970s.  Both partisanship and self-identified ideology appear to have fluctuated modestly within a narrow range, and opinion distributions retain a centrist shape with no indication of a shift toward the poles.

What did change, however, is the sorting of partisan sub-groups within the larger population (i.e., the distribution of partisans in terms of their ideology and issue opinions): "Self-identified Democrats have become more homogeneously liberal and self-identified Republicans more homogeneously conservative. And the differences between the two partisan groups on issues have increased, although not nearly as much as those among party elites. For example, ordinary Democrats and Republicans were indistinguishable on abortion until the 1990s and then began to differ (as the figure below illustrates), but even in 2012, American National Election Study data indicate that a quarter of Democrats arguably fall into the pro-life category and a third of Republicans into the pro-choice category."

According to Fiorina and Abrams, sorting contributes to the extreme partisanship of political candidates (and Washington politics), as well as high levels of voter dissatisfaction as political parties get out of step with their electorate: "According to a 2008 Comparative Study of Electoral Systems poll only about 40 percent of Americans felt that the Democratic Party represented their views “reasonably well,” about 30 percent believed the Republican Party represented their views “reasonably well,” and the other 30 percent believed neither party represented their views. We suspect that these figures would be lower today, but taken at face value, they suggest that an attempt by either party to implement its program would find a less than enthusiastic response among 60-70 percent of the public."

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Frederique Laubepin

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