The American Culture War Myth

JANUS Tête à Tête  Sitting President  President elect Barack Obama  Donald Trump squatting next to each other on arm chairs in the Oval Office on November 10th 2016. 31196987133
JANUS Tête à Tête Sitting President President elect Barack Obama Donald Trump squatting next to each other on arm chairs in the Oval Office on November 10th 2016. 31196987133

America is not polarized. Most Americans are not interested in politics. Bold policy initiatives increase the risk electoral defeat. These are just some of the counterintuitive yet convincing arguments that Professor Morris Fiorina of Stanford University has made in his works “Culture War? The Myth of Polarized America” and “Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate.” This week we sat down with Professor Fiorina as part of our Spirited Discussion series. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. 

Joe Schuman: Thank you for joining us, Professor Fiorina. I wanted to start with a thought that I had while reading “Culture War” and “Unstable Majorities” which is that your conclusion that America is not polarized, or more specifically that the American people are not polarized, seems counterintuitive. Have you received pushback on this argument? And if so how do you explain it in simple terms?

Morris Fiorina: I actually got a good bit of pushback at the beginning from some political scientists who didn’t understand the argument. The argument is that the parties are polarized. The electorate actually looks just like it did in the late 1970s in the Carter years. The difference is in those days the parties were very heterogeneous whereas today they are homogeneous. If you are a liberal today you are in the Democratic Party and if you are a conservative today you are in the Republican Party. Whereas back in those days we used to have liberal Republicans in the northeast and we used to have conservative Democrats in the south and the west. So it was a lot easier for the parties to get together and have cross-party coalitions.

Interestingly, today there are actually a lot fewer people in the parties themselves. Back in the Eisenhower era, three quarters of Americans said they were either a Democrat or a Republican. Today, it’s only about 60%. So 40% of the public won’t admit to being a member of one party or the other. So, my argument is that what we are seeing is a sorting of the American people, not polarization, and this sorting results in party polarization. So it’s okay to use the term polarization as long as you modify it with the term “party.” And the second part of the argument is simply that the political class—the candidates, the donors, the activists—are really sorted. Whereas when you get down to the level of the ordinary, uninformed voter who doesn’t pay much attention, there are still many Democrats who have Republican positions and vice versa.

JS: So on the topic of sorting, if the American electorate hasn’t changed since the Carter Administration, then why have the parties sorted? My understanding is that it boils down to media fragmentation, money in politics, and gerrymandered electoral maps. Do you agree with these arguments?

MF: I discuss this in the book you didn’t mention, “Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics.” I think sorting has a lot to do with demographic changes in the country. After World War II, we saw a massive migration of African Americans from the south to the north, which had the effect of pushing the northern democrats in a more racially liberal direction. Meanwhile the sunbelt is growing by leaps and bounds and the Republicans see that their future is the “southern strategy” which is to go south and peel off southern voters with a socially conservative position. So that’s a big part of what’s going on. It has to do with demographic changes that disrupt the old coalitions and some creative coalition building by politicians. As far as the structural things, I’m not sure. We started to see sorting in the Congress in the early 1970s. It takes until the mid to late 1980s until we really start to see it in the electorate. And all of this is really before the big changes in the media universe and in campaign finance. Most academic research suggests that gerrymandering doesn’t have a big role to play. That the representatives look about equally polarized regardless of whether you have a competitive district or a state district.

JS: The interesting, perhaps concerning, thing about that line of argument is that if demographics are the cause of sorting and, as a result, party polarization, then what can be done? How are we going to get out the current situation we are in?

MF: Well I was hoping your generation could come up with an answer to that. I can’t think of any, really… If you look at some of Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol’s work, you will see that they note that a lot of the organizations that used to be an intermediary between the political system and the public were cross-class. They were very heterogeneous organizations. When I was in high school, the Rotary would have high school students over for lunch once a month. And all those sorts of cross-class organizations have been on the decline and replaced by all sorts of political organizations. So politicians nowadays go back to their districts and speak to the pro and anti-tax groups, and the pro and anti-abortion groups, etc. It is a different kind of intermediary structure. And it has the effect of creating these more homogeneous coalitions.

It used to be that there were basically two issues and, granted, it wasn’t good to keep race off the agenda but it was off the agenda. It was just economics and foreign affairs. There was kind of a consensus on foreign policy after WWII. And on economics, you can fight over taxes and regulations and but ultimately compromise. With the social issues, today, one side will raise an issue to the level of “rights” and then it becomes a lot harder, because you can’t compromise a right. That’s simply destroying it.

JS: On Divided We Fall, we’ve done mostly economic debates and a little foreign policy. But we’ve really tip-toed around social policy because those are the debates that get really heated… Your comment about civil society is a really interesting one. In my day job I am involved with promoting national service. And it’s funny how my two worlds have crossed. A lot of the national service community believes that promoting a year of service is a way to get at this polarization issue. 

MF: I agree with that. Those who served during the mass mobilization of WWII knew people from other parts of the country. The geographic interaction really has been lowered. People should be moved around the country. The New York kids should be sent to Iowa and vice versa. The military used to do that but we’ve really gotten away from that. Most of the people I see in Palo Alto just couldn’t imagine living in Kansas. It’s not their realm.

JS: On the topic of sorting, it really seems like we’re living through a period of sorting right now with Trump’s takeover of the Republican party. Democratic positions on trade or foreign policy, for example, now seem to have become more mainstream in the Republican party. Is it Trump as an individual that is doing this or is there something else that he is tapping in to?

MF: What Trump tapped into is that the electorate is not nearly as well sorted as the party leaders are. You may remember people like Bill Kristol and George Will complaining that Trump’s not a “true” conservative and all that. Trump proved that he could depart from traditional Republican orthodoxy and win over people who might be vaguely Republican but who didn’t buy the ideological definitions of the conservative elite. What Trump did was take advantage of the fact that the public is not nearly as well sorted as are the two parties.

JS: Just a couple more questions on your books. A central idea in “Unstable Majorities” is about political overreach. That once in power, a political party enacts policies supported by the base but not by a sufficient number of the American people and as a result gets thrown out of power. And that this cycle continues back and forth, which is why we haven’t seen a party retain power for more than two terms since George H.W. Bush and many recent mid-terms have flipped party control in the Senate and Congress. As an independent Democrat, I can see that happening right now in the Democratic primary. I’ve tried to communicate this point to many of my progressive friends but it’s difficult to argue that if you want your side to win and hold on to power, you need to sacrifice some of your policy objectives.

MF: I see two answers there. If you think about Pelosi in 2010, she probably knew that the Affordable Care Act could cost the Democrats their majority. But she felt that they had a once in a generation opportunity and needed to strike while the iron was hot. Damn the consequences. That was the sense that a lot of the Democrats had then. They knew they would be up against it in 2010 but went ahead anyways. I think that’s part of it. And the other thing is, and I hate to go to psychological explanations, but the capacity for people to delude themselves is really surprising sometimes… I see it on both sides of the political spectrum.

JS: A central part of the mission of Divided We Fall is to connect, empower, and inspire people who I might call radical Centrists, people like me who are passionate about bucking the party tide and don’t want to go along with the herd, as well as people I call “closet” Centrists, who might quietly feel this way but are outnumbered in their house or their friend group and don’t speak up. So I love your argument about the importance of political independents but as someone who is relatively politically independent, I often feel outnumbered. I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom for us independents out there.

MF: I think independents have to realize that there are more numerous than they perceive. Especially with the “spiral of silence” phenomenon that I discuss in the book, wherein people who think of themselves as the minority don’t speak up. When they don’t speak up, they don’t realize they may even outnumber those they assume to be the majority. And then the majority doesn’t hear any dissent so they assume their group is homogeneous. So there is a misperception on both sides. I think people who are independent have to realize that the people arguing on TV are simply not representative of the broader public. There are a lot of people in the middle out there.

JS: The spiral of silence point is very valid and for me, reemphasizes the importance of civil discourse. Because if people can’t engage civilly, if they are going to be attacked for expressing their views, they have a significantly smaller incentive to speak up. Do you see a relationship between the civil discourse issue and the party polarization and sorting that is happening?

MF: Yes definitely. When the parties were less sorted, it was hard to hate the other party because there were people who were just like you. And that’s just not true today. Then you add in the effects of social media, where people have exaggerated views of the other parties. One of the interesting findings in my book is that the more involved in politics you are—the more partisan and the more ideological—the less accurate you are about the other side. Independents get it right more often than Democratic and Republicans. The people who pay attention to the political talk shows and read the magazines get a really jaundiced view of what the other party is like. If you could just bring people face to face, perhaps mixing them up in national service or something like that, anything we can do to have people interact with real people instead of getting their impressions from social media, that is good.

JS: I really appreciate you taking the time, Professor Fiorina.

MF: Thank you. I think what you are doing is God’s work. I hope it succeeds.

If you like this piece, check out more spirited discussions here.

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Joseph Schuman
Editor-in-Chief at Divided We Fall | + posts

Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.

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Professor Morris Fiorina
Wendt Family Professor and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University | Website | + posts

Morris P. Fiorina is the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution. He received an undergraduate degree from Allegheny College and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester and taught at Caltech and Harvard before joining Stanford in 1998. Fiorina has written widely on American politics, with special emphasis on the study of representation, public opinion, and elections.


Eric August 24, 2022 at 1:15 pm

God forbid that one individual (of any party) should be permitted to become the arbiter of truth, law and equity in these once-United States.

americansurvivor11816 June 22, 2019 at 11:09 am

This conversation mentioned “what will it take to change the party polarization of our current era?” I fear that if the one sided, liberally biased Main Stream Media continues to embrace this party polarization, it will eventually be neutralized via civil war. I don’t wish that to happen, but it’s seemingly more inevitable with each passing day in this politically charged climate. As far as the age of Trump in regard to the parties, I feel that we Trump supporters have formed, and are now solidifying The Party Of Trump. I believe that this party is being comprised of people of all former political parties. I know many fellow Trump supporters who are former conservatives and liberals alike.

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