State Policy Network
Divergent Thinking: Party polarization with Morris Fiorina

By Todd Davidson, State Policy Network’s Senior Director of Strategic Development

Talk of political polarization is everywhere. Some pundits are even predicting a civil war between Team Red and Team Blue. I too, had this mindset until a friend of mine handed me a copy of Unstable Majorities by Morris Fiorina. The book opened my eyes to the fact that we may not be as divided as the political class and media would like us to believe.

I sat down with Morris during the latest episode of SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show to discuss the findings of this insightful book. We touched on what drives polarization and some of the misconceptions surrounding the topic.

See below for interview highlights, as well as the full recording of my conversation with Morris.

Q: What did the 2016 and 2020 elections reveal about the American electorate and polarization?

Fiorina: It’s a real mistake to infer from post-elections anything about polarization or sorting. The reason is, a 50/50 election could mean half the electorate hates the other half, or it could mean that nobody cares—they all walk into the voting booth and flip a coin. You get a 50/50 outcome no matter what. So that’s why, in political science, we always look at the underlying attitudes, because the outcome tells us nothing. When we look at the actual underlying attitudes, we see that basically it’s a case of the electorate responding to the polarized parties—not because the electorate itself has become any more polarized.

Q: The more interested you are in politics, the more polarized you are. What’s the causal driver behind that?

Fiorina: When you think about it, it’s common sense. Do you ever hear people say things like “raging moderate”? Or “knee-jerk moderate”?  No. When you think of moderation, you think reason and tolerance and so forth.

There are all sorts of psychological theories on this topic but, for example, the people who are active in Greenpeace obviously feel much more strongly than the average person about saving the whales. And that just repeats itself in issue area after issue area.

One of the suggestions I made (totally tongue-in-cheek),is that everything should be done by a lottery. You should choose people randomly and say: “you have to be on the school board for two years,” or “you have to be on the zoning board for two years.” That way, you get a representative sample rather let people select on to these things. Because the very fact people are selecting into these arenas almost by definition means they are unrepresentative of the larger population.

Q: What are some of the reasons why Congress is so polarized?

Fiorina: It’s been building for a long time. You can point to demographic factors such as race. After World War II you have a big migration of African Americans from the South to the North.

And that increases the political pressure in the North for civil rights and other social welfare legislation. And when Northern Democrats become more liberal, that creates additional tensions with the Southern Democrats. That, in turn, encourages Republicans to begin thinking about, as Barry Goldwater said, “go hunting where the ducks are.”

Especially since the Sun Belt is growing—so northern areas are losing population. Republicans used to be competitive in places like New York and Illinois, and suddenly they are thinking, “maybe we have a shot at the South.”

There are other reasons to point to. For example, if someone asked me in the 1960s: Which party is going to be the pro-life party in 50 years? I would probably say the Democrats, because the Northern Democrats are Catholic, and the southern Democrats are Baptist. It didn’t work out that way.

Or take the environment. If someone asked me which party is going to be the party of the environment, I’d say probably the Republican Party. It’s the party of Teddy Roosevelt, the party of old-style environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Democrats are the party of mine and steel workers—occupations that are threatened by environmental protection. Again, it doesn’t work out that way.

These are exercises in coalition building. Coalition leaders saw ways to put issues together and did it—and we’re sort of stuck with the way they did. Even though, in many cases, it makes no sense. Why should the fact that I want low taxes have anything to do with my views on abortion? And yet that’s the package I have to buy if I want to vote in today’s elections.

Q: You hear most often that the public is polarized, so they just go into the voting booth and they pull the Democrat lever or the Republican lever. But what you’re saying is they are the same thing. So, if the democrat President supports the same things that the democratic Senator supports, it’s because the Democrat Senator can’t differentiate himself?

Fiorina: Exactly, this is one of the big misconceptions out there: that the decline in split ticket voting means that voters have become more partisan. It might. But the difference is—people in 1984 could say “I’m going to go for Ronald Reagan, but my democratic member of Congress is a pretty conservative person, so I’m going to vote for them too.”

And I think the best example is Joe Manchin, who is basically our only example nowadays. Manchin, in the 2012 race, carried West Virginia by 25 points. That same year, Romney also carried West Virginia by 25 points.

Now there’s two possibilities. One is West Virginians are really weird and they are the only people out there still splitting their ticket. The other possibility is that they are the only people in the United States who had the choice of voting for a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat. There are almost none left. So there was no any ideological inconsistency in West Virginia voters, they were simply among the few people who had the opportunity to vote for a Democrat like that.

Q: How has campaign finance affected party polarization?

Fiorina: If you go back 40-50 years, you find that most contributions to Congressional races were individual contributions, and those donations came within the district, or at least within the state. Now the financing has become nationalized. A whole lot of it comes from out of state. The Democrats use Hollywood in Manhattan as a piggy bank. And Republicans use Texas.

Why should an Oregon and Ohio Republican have exactly the same positions? Well, one of reasons is simply because they both get their money from the same set of donors. And why should a Democrat from Massachusetts and Mississippi, for example, have the same positions? But they both are funded by the same sources. So the fact that fundraising is gone national in this way, I think is another contributor to that we’re seeing.

Q: If so much so much of the public is centrist, why isn’t a candidate running to that center and picking up those votes?

Fiorina: There are two good books on this. One is by one of my colleagues Andy Hall at Stanford. And the other is by Daniel Thompson at UC Irvine. And what they find is—the principal avenue to get into Congress is state legislatures of course, and the argument given by most political scientists is that moderates don’t win the primaries. And the reason for that is simply that it’s only strong partisans who vote in the primaries. And it actually turns out it’s more complicated than that: Moderates don’t even run. And they don’t run in part, because they say “I can’t get anything done.” You’re sort of a pariah in each party if you’re a moderate or middle-of-the-road type. And so there’s been a decline in the number of moderate state legislators.

Another thing is moderates don’t get funded. The people that fund these campaigns are, in many cases, true believers on the issues they are concerned about. If somebody is a wishy-washy moderate, those types of candidates don’t excite the donor base.

Q: Are there any reforms out there that will work, end sorting, and give centrists a chance?

Fiorina: Institutional reforms work on the edges to some extent, but they are not the key. I have one proposal, but it’s unconstitutional. But I think it would work.

You have an amendment that says all funding for campaigns to candidates can only be made by individuals who are eligible to vote in the election for that office. So the only people who can contribute to a state legislative race are people who live in that district. That would simply break this nationalization we’re seeing. So the higher representative would be free to make different policies than the state representative.

Now that will take us back to the 1970s, when I was writing about the parties being not coherent enough. This was the typical Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” era. What happened was we got out of that and now we’ve gone too much to the other side. But short of any major institutional transformations like that, I don’t see any reforms having a major impact.

Q: In your book, you cite a lot of science around “bubbles.” Could you elaborate on that? What happens when you’re in a bubble?

Fiorina: The first thing to point out is that the only people who are in bubbles are politicians and journalists who write about bubbles. Ordinary people are not. Another important thing to remember is people’s face-to-face networks are the most homogeneous of all. If there were no newspapers or no social media people would have more biased information than they do now.

Also, ordinary people consume very little information. All the studies to try to find filter bubbles and ideological silos conclude the ordinary people just bounce back and forth when you do seek information from one site to another—some are conservative, and some are liberal.

The Dutch had a big study where they followed people for seven years and tracked their behavior online. They found that only about two percent of the people in Holland could be said to live in a “bubble” in terms of usually going to one side or another. What was even more interesting is they found that rather than social media polarizing people, it was more likely that polarized people sought out social media.

And, so I think the whole idea of bubbles is exaggerated when it comes to the ordinary voter. Now it is a problem if your entire staff and your member of Congress is on Twitter all the time. A Pew study found that two percent of the population accounts for 80 percent of all political tweets on Twitter. Twitter is just a pathology—the only thing going for it is it’s not nearly as important as people think it is.

Q: What would you like to see advocates do more of in the future, given this political environment?

Fiorina: I think it’s important to keep the keep the political situation in mind. You may want to do X, but X has no political prospect, and so Y might be a little farther from what you might do, but it might be better than the status quo—so let’s get behind Y.

Ronald Reagan used to say: “somebody who agrees with me 70 percent of the time is my 70 percent friend, not by 30 percent enemy.” Too many people involved in politics today have that latter view. You want to get it all. And it doesn’t work that way. This is a huge democracy of 160 million voters and 230 million adults spread across a vast continental area. People simply have different interests and different values. To do anything you have to compromise. But still, as long as we keep electing people into office who are basically fighting a war, that’s hard to do.

Hear the full conversation with Morris Fiorina:

About SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show

SPN’s Divergent Thinking Show features conversations with leaders and thinkers on a range of trends and ideas that can foster innovation and more successful strategies in our work as think tanks and advocacy organizations at the state and local levels.

Organization: State Policy Network