Party sorting to blame for political stalemate, says Stanford political scientist

Political gridlock in contemporary U.S. politics can be explained by the increased sorting of the Democratic and Republican parties, says Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina.

The increased polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties has made for bad politics: As Democrats become more consistently liberal and Republicans more consistently conservative, the possibility of bipartisan compromise has greatly diminished, says Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina.

As Democrats become more consistently liberal and Republicans more consistently conservative, the possibility of bipartisan compromise has greatly diminished, says Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina. (Image credit: Getty Images)

This “party sorting” has led to the gridlock that characterizes much of contemporary politics, said Fiorina in an interview with Stanford News Service.

Here, Fiorina talks about polarization in America today. He argues that while the leadership and activists among the nation’s two main political parties are deeply polarized, the broader American public is not. As a result, control of the presidency, the Senate and the House “flip-flops,” he says. Because the parties only have support by a minority, they tend to lose the support of marginal supporters when party leaders push for full control to advance their platforms, Fiorina explains.

Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, studies elections and public opinion. His book Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate examines the American electorate and its voting patterns. Fiorina is also the Wendt Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

 

When you last spoke to Stanford News Service in 2017, you claimed that political polarization in the U.S. was exaggerated – that the ideologies and policy preferences of Americans had not changed much in several decades. Do you still believe that?

Yes. I’ve actually been making that argument – with lots of data – since the early 2000s when the red-state, blue-state narrative first emerged in political commentary. Since Trump’s election, it’s been a hard argument to sell but the evidence hasn’t changed. In August, for example, Voice of the People, a nonpartisan organization, released the results of in-depth surveys covering more than 80,000 Americans. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats agreed on 150 specific policy proposals all across the issue spectrum. Of course, you’d never know that if your picture of America comes from cable television and social media.

 

So, are you saying that the media are to blame?

Oh no, although the media certainly contribute. Conflict has high news value, so the media always have a bias toward covering conflict rather than cooperation, partisan warfare rather than bipartisan compromise. A bigger problem is who the media covers. What I call the political class – office-holders and candidates, donors, party and issue activists, partisan media commentators – are far more polarized than they used to be. They are the public face of politics, but they are not representative of average Americans.

Members of the broader American public are simply not that involved in politics. About 235 million Americans are eligible to vote in the general election. At most two-thirds of them will do so. Less than 3 percent of the eligible electorate subscribes to the New York Times. Liberals worry about Fox News and conservatives about MSNBC. Well, the Fox viewing audience is less than 2 percent of the eligible electorate while the audiences of MSNBC news shows are even smaller. And the data show pretty clearly that the political class’s infatuation with Twitter has only the faintest reflection in the general public. Political commentators worry about “filter bubbles” or “ideological silos” when most Americans get very little information rather than too much one-sided information.

 

I want to come back to one of the things you said above – that the political class is more polarized than it used to be. Why is that?

Political scientists distinguish between sorting and polarizing. The electorate as a whole hasn’t changed much even while a couple of generations have come and gone. But underneath there has been a lot of sorting. Even as late as the early 1990s there were lots of pro-choice Republicans and pro-gun Democrats. But since then, there has been a tendency for all the issues to line up more closely than they had in the past. If I tell you someone’s position on one issue, you can guess their party more accurately now than you could a generation ago. So, we have greater partisan polarization, even though the actual proportions of partisans have fallen.

But it’s important to recognize that this sorting process is much further along in the political class than in the general public. Abortion is the most striking example. The 2020 Democratic platform does not restrict abortion in any way; the Republican platform bans abortions after 20 weeks. Three-fourths of the country falls between those two poles.

The problem with sorting is that it generates the kind of gridlock that characterizes contemporary politics. One of the master generalizations of modern political science was that two-party systems have heterogeneous “catch-all” parties, whereas multi-party systems have parties that are well-defined ideologically. Party sorting in the U.S. contradicts that generalization. We now have parties that look like the ideological parties in multi-party systems – but there are only two of them! To govern they don’t have to form a coalition, which requires negotiation and compromise; instead, each of them strives for full control so they can ram their platform through. The problem is that they overreach; each of them only commands the support of a minority, so they tend to lose their marginal supporters in the next election.

 

What do you think will happen to the two political parties after the 2020 elections?

Although I’m a congenital optimist, I’m not sanguine about the years ahead. In my last book, Unstable Majorities, I pointed out that the U.S. is experiencing a period of electoral chaos unlike anything since the 19th century. Neither party can win control of our national institutions for any appreciable period of time. Control of the presidency, the Senate and the House keeps flip-flopping because of the overreaching I mentioned above. Leaders of the winning party delude themselves into thinking they have a mandate to implement their program and suffer the consequences in succeeding elections. Republicans lost the House in the 2018 elections, which added to the string of unstable majorities I documented, and it looks very likely now that they will lose the presidency and possibly the Senate, further extending the string of unstable majorities. If so, and the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party dominates the agenda, we would see severe Democratic losses in the 2022 mid-term elections. The bottom line is our problems are not going away and a paralyzed party system is not going to address them.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438, [email protected]