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Unstable Majorities


Published: October 19, 2018

Political pundits make it seem like our country is more polarized than it has been since the Civil War, but they’re wrong. The American public does not look much different today than it did in the 1970s. Instead, what has happened is that the political class – pundits, policymakers, and donors – has become more polarized. Along with ideological sorting by political parties, this change has made American politics seem more volatile than it actually is.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can the U.S. move towards a multi-party system?
  2. Are there any positives associated with party sorting?
  3. How can we mitigate polarization in politics?

Additional Resources

  • Read “Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate by Morris Fiorina,” available here.
  • Read “An Era of Tenuous Majorities” by Morris P. Fiorina, available here
  • Read "Has The American Public Polarized?" by Morris P. Fiorina, available here
  • Read “The Political Parties Have Sorted by Morris Fiorina,” available here.
  • Read “Party Sorting and Democratic Politics” by Morris Fiorina, available here
  • Read “The Temptation To Overreach” by Morris P. Fiorina, available here.
View Transcript
Fortunately for our country, this pessimistic picture of the United States is not accurate.  In the large, the American public of today does not look much different than it did in the 1970s, long before talk of polarization dominated the political narrative.
If we look at how American classify themselves ideologically, we see that in 2016 about 40 % said they were moderates, the same figure as in 1976 when the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter, a born again Sunday school teacher from Georgia, and the Republicans nominated Jerry Ford, a moderate from Michigan.
If we look at how Americans position themselves on specific issues, we see that they cluster in the middle of the scale between maximum and minimum government activist.
On health care for example (the red line), people favor something mid-way between a government takeover of the health care system and leaving everything to the insurance companies.  This holds true on issue after issue, including contentious ones like abortion and defense spending.
When we look at partisanship, the picture is even less consistent with a country divided into two warring camps.
In recent decades the Democrats have lost adherents but the Republicans have not gained them.  The growth category is independents.
Why then do citizens think we have become more polarized?  Because the political class has!  The PC consists of office-seekers, donors, activists, and partisan media commentators.  Such people aren’t representative and only comprise 15% or so of the country.  When we look just at them, we do see polarization—their center has gone away.
Such people are abnormal—they are not like the general public, but partisan commentators and opinion journalists portray them as normal, conveying an inaccurate impression of American political life.
Rather than polarization it’s better to think of what has happened in the U.S. as sorting.
At one time our parties were “big tents.”  They were heterogeneous.  There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.  We had bipartisanship in congress because some of the conservative Democrats agreed more with the Republicans than with liberal Democrats, and some liberal Republicans agreed more with liberal Democrats than with conservative Republicans.
No more.  The Democrats are now the liberal party and the Republicans the conservative party.
To some extent this has happened in the general public as well, but not nearly as much as in the political class.
Why are these developments problematic?
Well, the problem is that there are only two parties.  Most other countries have multi-party systems.  The United States is larger and more heterogeneous than most other countries, so you’d think we’d have more parties to represent our diversity.  But our majoritarian electoral system punishes third parties and maintains the two-party duopoly.
Public opinion studies show three clusters of issues—social welfare and economic issues, foreign and defense issues, and social cultural issues.
To keep things simple, let’s say that there are only two positions on each cluster. (A cautious (C) or assertive (A) stance on foreign and defense issues, a preference for government control (G) or free markets (M) on economic issues, and a progressive (P) or traditional (T) stance on social/cultural issues.) So there are 8 possible platforms a party could espouse: 
The contemporary Democratic Party offers platform #1 and the contemporary Republican Party offers platform #8.  But two sizes don’t fit all in a country like ours. Traditional New Deal Democrats would prefer platform #6, libertarians might prefer platform #3, and populists might platform #2.  Other Americans would make still different choices. Before the parties were so well-sorted candidates offered their constituents those additional possibilities, but not today. Many Americans have to choose a party they view as wrong on at least one of the issue clusters.
Consequently many people are not happy with the choices the parties offer.  The minority of strong partisans are happy with the system, but not so strong partisans and independents are not.
Other consequences are not so obvious.  In a multi-party system, it is unusual for a single party to win enough seats to govern by itself.  Governments typically are coalitions of parties.  This forces the parties to compromise. But in the US parties win by capturing a majority of independents.  They then try to pass the agenda of their base, which is more extreme than the general public prefers and often focused on issues that are not the highest priority.
I call this tendency “overreach” and it explains the unstable majorities that are recent.  
The fact that these two sorted parties are so evenly matched only makes the situation worse.  Knowing that control of institutions is up for grabs in each election, political incentives dominate.  As my colleague Frances Lee has argued, the congressional parties no longer view legislating as their priority; rather, winning the next election is their primary goal.
To that end, neither wants to solve a problem if keeping the issue alive is electorally advantageous.  Each party would rather embarrass the other party by stalemating it than allow it to claim credit for doing something the public approves. In too many cases a party opposes a proposal simply because the other party proposes it.
Our current gridlock and stalemate are the consequence, and our country is the poorer for it.