Widespread Divisions Constrain Actions of Political Elites
By Alan Abramowitz
The debate over polarization in American politics comes down to one fundamental question: Is polarization limited to those who comprise what Morris Fiorina of Stanford University has referred to as the political class—elected officials and a small set of activists—or is it evident among a large segment of the American public? The answer, in my view, is that polarization is now evident among a very large segment of the American public.
Fiorina and other critics of mass polarization argue that Americans have become better sorted by party in recent years but not more polarized. They acknowledge that there is a stronger relationship between party affiliation on the one hand and ideology and policy preferences on the other but they claim that this is different from polarization which involves a shift in opinion away from the center and toward the extremes. In fact, however, sorting and polarization are two sides of the same phenomenon. As Americans have become better sorted by party they have also become more polarized. The clearest evidence for this is the growing consistency of opinions across issues—what Philip Converse referred to as constraint in his classic essay on belief systems in mass publics back in 1964. The result is that there are much larger proportions of consistent liberals and conservatives than there were in the era studied by Converse.
Political elites have clearly played a major role in the rise of partisan polarization over the past several decades. But the public, or at least the politically engaged segment of it, has also become much more divided over time. And the divisions within the public have reached the point where they are now constraining the actions of political elites. One cannot understand the deep partisan divide in Washington and many of our state capitols today without taking into account the deep divisions in the nation—divisions of race, culture, geography and ideology.
Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University.
We asked academic experts, political scientists, historians, pollsters and policy analysts to contribute to an expert forum on this subject. In several days, we will contribute more public opinion data to the forum. The opinions reflect some differences in the academic community about how much and in what ways America is divided.
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