Thomas B. Edsall, “We See the Left. We See the Right. Can Anyone See the ‘Exhausted Majority’?” New York Times, March 24, 2021


Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, argues in a series of essays and a book, “Unstable Majorities,” that it is the structure of the two-party system that prevents the center — the moderate majority of American voters — from asserting their dominion over national politics. […]

Fiorina is addressing one of the most important questions in America today: Is there a viable center and can such a center be mobilized to enact widely backed legislative goals with bipartisan support?

This issue is the subject of intense dispute among strategists, scholars and pollsters.

In Fiorina’s view, polarization has been concentrated among “the political class: officeseekers, party officials, donors, activists, partisan media commentators. These are the people who blabber on TV /vent on Facebook/vilify on Twitter/etc.”

This process effectively leaves out “the general public (a.k.a. normal people)” who are “inattentive, uncertain, ambivalent, uninvolved politically, concerned with bread-and-butter issues.”

In support of his position, Fiorina has marshaled data showing that there are large numbers of voters who say that neither party reflects their views; that many of the most polarizing issues — including gay rights, gender equality, abortion and racial equality — rank 19 to 52 points below voters’ top priorities, which are the economy, health care, jobs and Medicare; and that the share of voters who describe themselves as moderate has remained constant since 1974.

[Cites two studies:]

  • The first, “A Not So Divided America,” conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland for a centrist group, Voice of the People. It found that if you compare “the views of people who live in red Congressional districts or states to those of people who live in blue Congressional districts or states,” on “only 3.6 percent of the questions — 14 out of 388 — did a majority or plurality of those living in red congressional districts/states take a position opposed to that of a majority or plurality of those living in blue districts/states.” / Of those 14, according to the Voice of the People study, 11 concerned “ ‘hot-button’ topics that are famously controversial — gay and lesbian issues, abortion and Second Amendment issues relating to gun ownership.”
  • The second study, “Hidden Tribes,” was conducted for “More In Common,” another group that supports centrist policies. […] In practice, the study found that polarization is driven in large part by the left flank of the Democratic Party and the right flank of the Republican Party, which together make up roughly a third of the electorate.

[Cites several others, with links. But survey data are not encouraging:]

Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center provide scant optimism for proponents of less divisive politics.

In a postelection reportMichael Dimock, Pew’s president, and Richard Wike, its director of global research, wrote that among both Biden and Trump voters, roughly 80 percent

said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine-in-ten — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States.

From 1994 to 2019, Pew tracked the percentage point difference between Republican and Democratic responses to 10 policy positions, including “the economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests,” “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values,” and “white people benefit from advantages in society that Black people don’t have.”

Over the 25 years from 1994 to 2019, the differences between the responses of Republicans (including those who lean Republican) and Democrats (including leaners) has more than doubled, from 15 points to 39 points.

[Edsall goes on to say:]

Fiorina and centrist groups base their case for a vital middle ground in American politics on voters’ heterodox ideological and policy stands. Where these analyses run into difficulty is in addressing another force driving political division, what political scientists call “expressive partisanship” or “affective polarization,” which has rapidly intensified in recent decades.

In an email, Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, addressed this tension:

If policy were the central focus of voter preferences, there very well could be support for a centrist movement. Public opinion data tell us that, policy-by-policy, there is a density of voters with center-left preferences.

But, he continued,

Our politics, as currently structured, is not primarily about policy positions. The zero-sum, identity and affect-based partisan polarization that dominates American politics today mixes with our institutions to make it difficult for a centrist movement to get off the ground.

[Which leads him to his gloomy conclusion. Not addressed is the role of partisan media in stoking divisions — or the opportunity for a centrist public education campaign, e.g. “reaching the reachable,” perhaps by finessing the gatekeepers via online media …]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s