“The election of 2008… marked the end of an epoch. No longer could Republicans count on the basic conservatism of the American people, the reflexive hostility to candidates who favour big government” (Darman, 2010, 34) In the 1970s and 1980s there was a consensus that the importance of political parties was in decline, that the shared conservative ideology of the American electorate was reflected in the similar ideology and policy of the Democratic and Republican party. Now, however, the parties are seemingly taking on renewed importance as the population of the United states grows less and less homogenous.
There is now a consensus in the American media that their politics are increasingly Polarized between the liberal voters who vote Democrat, and the more traditional conservatives who support the Republican Party. This essay will assess the evidence for whether or not the American political system is indeed polarizing, and if so, then for what reasons? The role of political elites will also be examined, whether or not they are polarizing aswell, and whether this is a large contributing cause of the polarising of the mass?
Many, including Marc Hetherington, contend that there has indeed been a period of mass and elite polarisation, and Hetherington believes that the mass polarization is a reaction to the elites increasing partisanship (2001, 621, 629). There is evidence in surveys that the political elite is polarizing; the amount of self proclaimed “very conservative” Republicans in congress and senate has risen from 12 to 30 percent since 1972, and the amount of “very liberal” Democrats has risen from 8 to 20 percent (Stone, 2010, 39), this shows that as much as half of delegates are radicals.
For this reason political debate has grown more and more rancorous, both in Washington DC and in the media. The role of information in Democracy cannot be understated, it is a cornerstone of Dahls Polyarchy (1972). Although some media companies may attest to attempting to provide news without bias, their agenda as businesses is to turn a profit and as it is common for them to take up political positions in order to gain market share.
To illustrate this, Fox News 24 hour television station was introduced in 1996 (this in itself could be seen as evidence for polarization) and by 2000 had managed to attract 17 percent of the US population by adopting a staunchly conservative viewpoint (DellaVigna, Kaplan, 2007), while one must stop short of attributing the Republican success at the 2000 election to the introduction of a conservative news station. The same study shows that not Fox News’ emergences causation with an increase in voter turnout (DellaVigna, Kaplan, 2007, 1228), arguably mobilising a previously disenchanted group.
The radical left and right leaning delegates mentioned above are naturally the most visible politicians to the public in terms of media coverage as a result of the medias wont for framing politics in terms of conflict (Hetherington, 2001, 622). It follows that the mass public will draw their positions from the partisan opinions and attitudes which they are exposed to on their televisions and in their newspapers, either in support of, or by vehemently disagreeing with, the controversial politicians, political pundits and journalists, and will express these outlooks in the polls come election time.
One tool which the media can use to project an image of a polarized country is by utilising state boundaries to show the success of the different parties in nationwide elections. The red state/ blue state maps are now a fixture of the news coverage as election results flood in, but it is interesting to note that as recently as 1984 Democratic victories were shown in red and Republican in blue. It is also curious that red, long the colour of Marxism, of Red China and Communist USSR (Patton, 2004).
The only relevance of these points is to show that the apparent deep rooted polarized political situation is both modern and subject to quite sudden change. The red/ blue map shown in Figure one shows how modern Polarisation has manifested itself over the last four elections. The dark red and blue show that those states have voted Republican or democratic respectively all four times. Lighter shades show that party has won all but once, while purple shows states which have gone to the Republicans and Democrats twice each.
On first glance this seems to back up the polarization theory, as Fiorina and Adams put it; “when the 2004 election almost reproduced the 2000 map, belief in the polarization narrative peaked as social conservatives gloated about the purported importance of “values voters” for the re-election of President Bush, and liberal commentators bitterly accepted that interpretation. “(2008, 564, 565) However when one examines the map in figure 2 which breaks down the 2008 election by county, rather than state. This map seems to throw an interesting side note onto the red state/ blue state theory.
While there is seldom a completely red or blue dominated state, in terms of area covered on the map, there is far more covered by republican red. The fact that the democrats won the election with so much less area covered shows that the blue areas are high in population denstity- cities and large towns. Rather than Republican south versus Democratic coasts, Figure 2 indicates a division between Rural Republican and Urban Democrat areas. Fig. 1 Fig. 2 There are other problems with the above quote, which Fiorina and Abrams do draw attention to.
For instance the assumed intrinsic connections common to the “value voters” are not as strong as they may seem. For instance Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry managed to pull one third of white evangelicals, and one third of gun owners (Fiorina and Abrams, 2008, 568). These are two criterion of the stereotypical conservative Bible-Belt citizen, and the media would have us believe that almost every single one would have supported the incumbent George W. Bush. This exaggeration is typical of the American media’s attempt to depict American politics as more polarized than it is.
Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and former chairman of the republican party here how he takes political news (in this case the pessimism about the future of the Republican party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008) with a pinch of salt; “In politics, things are never as good as they seem (in the media) and they’re never as bad as they seem” (Darman, 2010) If there is such polarization in the USA, such defined political cleavages, why then is every election so tightly contested, which Barone calls “The 49 Percent Nation” (Kaus, 2004)?
Surely if the nation was split along regional, urban/ rural, religious or ideological divides, then surely one group would be able to dominate the other, at least periodically, and one party would enjoy longer periods in office. In the past two decades no Presidential candidate has acheived more than 54% of the popular vote. Barbour implies that the greatest reason the democrats won the 2008 election is because it was simply “their turn” (Darman, 2010).
Mickey Kaus of political comment website Slate Magazine, attributes this seemingly strange run of results to the Median Voter Theory, also known as the Black Theorem (Black, 1948). Kaus explains that the ideological positions of the Republican and Democratic parties are not fixed, they do not remain where the lines in figure 3 show, rather they will gravitate towards the point upon the scale which will guarantee the greatest support. Because of this, in both the upper and lower graphs (ie regardless of whether the voting public is polarized or not) both the main parties would lie more or less in the centre of the graph.
The non proportional representation, two party electoral system reinforces this, as if their were many parties competing seriously it would allow for minority parties which could take up more extreme left or right points on the scale. Figure. 3- the vertical lines represent where ideology-driven liberal and conservative parties would be fixed upon the scale. The other line in each graph shows the how the voters are distributed along the political spectrum. In conclusion, there is significant evidence to show that a period of polarization has been occuring in the politics of the United States of America since approximately the mid 1990’s.
There are a myriad of reasons which could be applied, too many to be mentioned here, for example Hetherington mentions that Presidential approval ratings and poor economic performance can often lead to polarization. The greatest factor however, to stretch the US electorate’s homogeneity is the influence of the elites and the mass media. Arguably this could be seen as a give-and-take progression, with the elites emerging from the mass to elevated positions from which they may influence the mass, and the media reacting to the mass in order to produce a marketable service.
Furthermore it is important to note that although the USA does exist in a somewhat polarized state, the extent of that polarization is not as clearcut as sections of the media would have one believe. The US is not simply a nation off older gun toting, gay hating, anti abortion Republicans and younger coastal, ethnically diverse gay loving pro-choice socialist Democrats. Perhaps a more apt description would be as a nation of centralist influenced by a small amount of more extreme outliers of liberal and conservative persuasion.
Bibliography Political Polarization in the American Public, Fiorina, Morris and Abrams, Samuel, 2008, Stanford Resurgent Mass Partisanship: The Role of Elite Polarization, Hetherington, Marc, 2001, American Political Science Review The Fox News Effect; Media Bias and Voting, DellaVigna, Stefano and Kaplan, Ethan, 2007, Harvard On the Rationale of Group Decision Making, Black, Duncan, 1948, Chicago The Anti-Obama,Darman, Jonathan, 2010, Newsweek Fight Club, Thomas, Evan and Taylor Jr, Stuart, 2010, Newsweek.