Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

By Morris P. Fiorina with Samual J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope

Particularly after the 2000 and 2004 elections, there was significant talk in the media about a ‘culture war’ taking place in America and about deep divisions occurring among the population. Fiorina looks at this issue from a number of angles, using a wide variety of data to determine whether the United States is deeply divided and whether it is becoming more partisan. He finds that the evidence does not support the idea that the United States is deeply divided or polarized. Instead, the majority of people seem to be moderate, even on what are thought to be the most controversial issues, such as abortion. He does find that political candidates and the political class in general (the 1% of the population actively involved in politics day to day), unsurprisingly, is much more polarized than the general public. He argues that because the candidates are becoming more polarized, this gives the impression that individuals in the general public are more polarized, though this is not the case. He suggests that the change in the political class and candidates is due to changes in government in the 1960s that resulted in less direct benefits from politics (less appointed civil service positions, etc.), which led to a decrease in the number of political actors motivated by material benefits and only focused on winning and an increase in the number of political actors motivated by ideology.

Chapter 1: Culture War?
Over the past 20 years there have been numerous examples of media and political actors referencing a culture war and the deepening of divisions within America. These are statements such as Pat Buchanan’s 1992 statement that, “There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” And the Pew Research Center’s report arguing, “The red states get redder and the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.” This book aims to show that despite these sentiments, there is no culture war in the United States, at least not among the general population. This myth is based on the misinterpretation of election returns, a lack of comprehensive examination of data, and selective coverage by media.

Chapter 2: If America is Not Polarized, Why Do So Many Americans Think It Is?
The myth that America is a deeply divided nation is based primarily on four contributing factors.

1. Confusing closely divided with deeply divided. It is true that national elections each year (as given by presidential and house votes) have seen the winning party come in with about 49% of the popular vote. However, this could be explained by a population distribution (from left/democrat to right/republican) that looks like a normal distribution (bump in the middle with small tails on the sides) or an upside-down normal distribution (most people located on the ends with very few in the middle). Many in the media assumed that these close elections represented a deeply divided nation (the upside-down image), but in reality, the general population is normally distributed.

2. Activitists are not normal (representative) people. The political class is polarized, and this small group is often the one interacting most with the media and with others in the political class, creating an impression that it is representative of the country as a whole. When comparing delegates at the presidential nominating conventions to representative national samples of people who identify themselves as democrat or republican, we see a much greater divide on issue positions between the democrat and republican delegates than is seen among the democrats and republicans in the general population. A comparison of the size of the political class to the general public can be seen in some representative figures. There are 202 million people of eligible voting age and 122 million that voted in 2004. By contrast, the daily audience for Fox News is 3.3 million. If every one of those viewers fully agreed with the sentiments expressed and voted accordingly in 2004, they would make up only 3% of the vote.

3. The Media. The media interacts primarily with the political class, and thus has a skewed perspective. When writing stories they often use stories as examples rather than statistics, and these stories are often picked to fit the theory rather than the other way around.

4. Confusing Positions with Choices. Polarization of people’s choices is not the same as polarization of their positions. Even if people are not polarized in their positions, if the candidates are polarized, then the choices that people make are more likely to be polarized. This is why we hear statistics such as “90% of Republicans voted for Bush and 90% of Democrats voted for Kerry.” If candidates were more moderate, then it would be possible for voters choices to be less polarized.

Chapter 3: A 50:50 Nation? Red and Blue State People are Not That Different
Comparisons of the populations in the red states and blue states (using national survey data) do not show significant differences, particularly when their affect on voting is taken into account. Differences are small in their views on the parties, religions, business, and a wide variety of other issues. Interestingly, the number of self-Identifying Democrats and Republics within red and blue states is similar, and in both cases the self-identified independents were the largest group.

Chapter 4: A 50:50 Nation? Beyond the Red and Blue States
The previous chapter looked at statistical differences among red and blue states and found very little difference, but this may be in part because they are such large aggregations of groups. This chapter aims to look at other categories. However, studies find that by age, education, race, religion, gender, party-id, and a number of other ares, evidence points to a depolarization in intergroup differences. The greatest difference among groups Is found to be only about 10 percentage points (on gay rights), but a 10% difference doesn’t really suggest a deep divide.

Chapter 5: A Closer Look at Abortion
Polls show that since the 1970’s, people’s positions on abortion have stayed relatively stable. Asked whether a legal abortion should be possible in each of six circumstances (ranging from ‘the woman’s own health is seriously endangered’ to ‘she is married and doesn’t want any more children’), the difference in responses among groups is fairly low. Red states, on average, support 3.5 of the six circumstances, and blue states about 4 of the six. Differences among those who attend church every week or more and those who attend several times a year or less are greatest, but even here, the difference is less than 2. Surveys find that few people have extreme views on abortion, arguing that is should either always or never be legal. Surveys also show there is not a significant difference between men and women on the issue. Women tend to differ from men most significantly on issues of security (supporting more dove-like policies) and role of government (supporting more civil services).

Chapter 6: A Closer Look at Homosexuality
Homosexuality is a more recent issue than that of abortion, but data shows that people (divided by ages, parties, states, etc.) in general are becoming more accepting of homosexuality. Again, the majority of people seem to have moderate views on the issue, and a majority of people don’t support a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Though acceptance of homosexuality is increasing in all age groups, it is the highest among young people, suggesting that the issue may get even less controversial as time goes on.

Chapter 7: Have Electoral Cleavages Shifted?
Some suggest that while economic issues used to be the main divider among groups, this is now less important, and cultural issues are more important. Though the connection between religious denomination and political party has eroded over time, the connection between political party and religiosity (measured by looking at how often one attends services) has increased. Though there is more of a divide along this measure recently, evidence shows no decline in the importance economics in political divisions.

Chapter 8: The 2004 Election and Beyond
In the 2004 election, many argued that Bush had won because people had voted based on moral issues. However, an analysis of post-election polls shows that the deciding factors in the 2004 election had to do with presidential leadership and issues like the war in Iraq and the ability to keep the country safe from further terrorist violence. Further, it showed that if we were to assign credit for reelecting Bush on a particular group, it would not be social conservatives, it would be women. While other groups stayed similar between elections, women consistently (married, single, white, black, etc.) were 5% more likely to vote from Bush in 2004 than in 2000.

Chapter 9: Reconciling Micro and Macro
The previous chapters have shown that on the level of normal Americans, there is not increasing partisanship among people and there are not deep divisions. Nationally, however, parties, and candidates have become more deeply divided. As candidates have become more divided, this had made it seem as if people were more divided. Fiorina shows graphically that if candidates differ on two dimensions (economic and moral) rather than one (economic only, because they are similar on moral issues, for example) then even if voter beliefs stay the same, it will appear as if voters care more about the second dimension (moral) and less about the first dimension (economic). He argues that this has caused confusion among researchers, since the results of analysis look the same whether the positions of the candidates change or the positions of individuals change.

Chapter 10: How Did It Come to This and Where Do We Go from Here?
There are three major changes that have occurred in the past decades that may have helped to cause the polarization of the political class. First, there has been a decline in material incentives (such as civil service jobs to appoint, etc.) associated with political participation. This caused a decline in the number of people participating in politics that focused on their own material stake and caused an increase in the participation of those with ideological motivations. The purists that have entered government then receive disproportionate attention from media, furthering the impression that America is divided. Second, the role of government has been expanding. There is now a great deal of legislation dealing with social and environmental issues. This creates new opportunities for passionate people to bring their related issues to government attention. Finally, government has become increasingly open and participatory. There have been more open meetings, recorded votes, and other procedures that allow citizens to follow government activity. However, it is not the average American that takes advantage of the openness of government. Most people don’t have the time or interest to follow government meetings and votes closely. Instead, these opportunities have been used primarily by those who have strong policy or ideological beliefs.

Fiorina offers three caveats to his statements. First, he notes that he is not aiming at a society that is in perfect harmony, but he does belief that currently we have unnecessary conflict that is unrepresentative of most people in the country. Second, he acknowledges that the changes in government that he has mentioned are not necessarily bad, though they do allow more fanatics to be involved in government. Thirdly, he stresses that he is not advocating that we suppress minority points of view. People with extreme views should be allowed to represent those views. However, there is no reason that they should be given disproportionate power by the political order.

It is unlikely that the political class will solve this problem. Since they are ideologically, they are legitimately in a culture war, even if it isn’t one most people are involved in. Media could help the situation by being more representative and tempered in their coverage, but headlines like “Americans agree on core values” doesn’t really sell papers. However, there are a number of possible actions that could be taken to help alleviate this situation.

Primary reform may provide one way to ensure that less extreme candidates are nominated, giving people more moderate options in elections. This could be done by implementing blanket or run-off primaries, in which people get to vote in the primary election for both parties. Fiorina provides an example of the impact of primaries in California. In 1994, California elected a republican governor and four out of six statewide offices when to republicans. However, republican primaries began to nominate increasingly socially conservative candidates, and this led to the election of more democrats. Fiorina argues that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the exception that proves the rule – when Gray Davis was recalled, it gave Schwarzenegger (a more moderate republican) a chance to get on the ballot, and he won.

It may also be possible to address this issue through redistricting reform. Rather than allowing gerrymandering to create districts with seats that are safe for each party, the districts should be redrawn to be more competitive. This would tend to lead to more moderate candidates being elected in these districts.

Another idea is to increase voting participation. If more voters are taking part, then there will be more demand for moderate candidates (since most people are moderate). However, it will be difficult to significantly increase participation except through compulsory voting, which, though it is implemented in other countries, does not seem like a practical solution in the United States.

Finally, Fiorina suggests that a third party candidate – one who stands between the current parties – may be successful in gaining a significant portion of the vote. Fiorina (writing in 2006) suggests that if the parties realize people are interested in moderate candidates, someone like John McCain could be nominated and have a great deal of support. He suggests that it is likely that a more moderate candidate could win the presidential election in 2008.