Wanless Op-Ed: Political Extremes Pinch the Middle

The following op-ed by Augustana's Dr. Emily Wanless, assistant professor of government and international affairs/political science, appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 4, issue of the Argus Leader:

Political Extremes Pinch the Middle

By Dr. Emily Wanless

A 2009 Gallup poll regarding the 2008 presidential election found 93 percent of Democrats supported Barack Obama, while only 7 percent voted for Republican John McCain. The Republican side saw the exact same partisan-motivated voting, 93 percent of Republicans for McCain, 7 percent for Obama.

This is just one indication of the growing polarization in this country, as depicted by the media’s constant referrals to “red states” and “blue states,” the growing numbers of party unity votes in Congress and the overarching combative tone between the culturally progressive and orthodox.

The “Divided States of America” is alive and well. Or is it?

Polarization is the bitter division of political parties, between the poles or extremities of the two major parties in the U.S.

If we are to believe polarization exists in this country, we should see members of Congress, the media, voters and the population at large move away from moderate positions, replacing them with extremely liberal and conservative stances on the many issues facing this country. And, if you listen to the media at all or follow Congress’ legislative production in the slightest, you would certainly believe we exist in a polarized world. However, upon closer inspection, it turns out that you and I, along with the rest of the general population, are not as polarized as we are made out to be. Several reasons for this misnomer have been explored by political scientists, and none better articulated than in Morris P. Fiorina’s 2010 book on the myth of the American Culture War. First, there is a difference between a closely divided nation and a deeply divided nation.

We can have elections being decided by the tiniest of margins, more challenges made to incumbents and similar membership growth in the two political parties.

That does not mean we are polarizing at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum; rather, it indicates party parity.

The presidential election in 2000 was closely divided, but with about half the population claiming to be moderate, or only slightly partisan, that division was not deep. Secondly, while it is true the media and political elite in this country are polarized, they are not representative of the rest of the population. Those in the media or who are politically active are polarized because they are educated on the issues and understand the ideological spectrum, making it easy for them to take a hard-line position. When you are less knowledgeable about an issue area, you are less comfortable, and therefore less willing, to commit to a firm stance. The population at large is less knowledgeable and committed than the political class, yet the media frames our political discussions through their level of polarization. This leads to the misrepresentation that we all exist in the same polarized world of the media and Washington, D.C.

Finally, and potentially the most important reasons for the misconceptions surrounding polarization, is the confusion between people’s positions and people’s choices.

A position is a person’s uncensored preference towards an issue, actor or action. A choice, however, is when a person is presented with polarizing alternatives and forced to weigh them against their own position. The reality is the people’s positions are not more polarized; rather, the choices given to them are. Take for example, a young, moderate woman in this election. She is probably socially liberal leaning and finds the zero exception abortion policy added to the Republican platform entirely too extreme.

However, she is not impressed with Obama Administration and the continued economic strife affecting her pocketbook.

She must choose between the lesser of two evils: “Jesusland” or “The United States of Canada.”

There is no question polarization and ideological extremes exist in this country. They just are not prevalent in the homes of most Americans. The number of self-identified moderates and independents has steadily grown during the past 25 years, with more citizens placing themselves into this category than into an ideological or partisan camp. We may recognize that recent moves by both presidential candidates to appear more moderate had political motivations; however, a move to the middle might be appealing beyond the swing voters in Ohio or Colorado.

Moderate positions might be appealing to the population at large.