The Brookings Institute reports that Congress is more polarized than it was a generation ago – the overlap between the parties has all but disappeared. “Safe” districts with partisan supermajorities have helped to push politicians away from the center. The widening ideological gap between party activists in recent decades has also made our politicians more polarized. Most importantly, partisans vote more consistently than those with moderate views.
According to Pew Research, 73% of those with “consistently conservative” attitudes are likely to vote in midterms and 58% of those with “consistently liberal” attitudes are likely to turn out. But only 25% of those that don’t fully align with either party can be expected to vote. This partisan heavy voting encourages candidates to court those at the furthest end of the political spectrum. Additionally, these more partisan voters tend to select candidates based on party rather than specific issues. Ticket splitting has become rare – as have more moderate candidates.
The declining regulation of the media has also increased politicized content. And the small, more activist minority that are most politically involved control the news cycle – partisanship sells, not moderation. More typical Americans are not the ones featured in the media. Keep in mind that less than 2% of the eligible electorate subscribe to the NY Times and about 1% watch Fox News or Rachel Maddow. Most Americans are not paying much attention to the political wars being fought by political elites.
Despite more polarized views among political leaders, activists and media, there is no evidence of significant change in the electorate’s overall ideological balance during the last forty years. A senior fellow from the Hoover Institution reports that the public doesn’t look any different than it did in 1976 – more Americans classify themselves as moderates than liberals or conservatives and today’s registered voter splits are virtually identical. Forty percent of today’s public declines to identify with either party – they favor a middle ground between the two.
The real cause of our political turbulence is “party sorting”, widely mistaken for polarization. What reinforces the difficulty of working together is the close party balance – neither enjoys majority support. Additionally, the two parties have moved farther apart in their views, with little to no common ground. And the parties have become geographically sorted – the democratic base is urban and coastal, while the Republican base is Southern and Midwestern. Winning control has become the primary goal, not solving the country’s problems.
The result is two highly sorted parties trying to impose their narrow vision on a big, heterogeneous country. When one party wins and caters to its base, it alienates the more moderate voters, who then defect to the other party in the next election in an attempt to try something different. The vicious cycle then repeats and control of our national institutions flip back and forth. Voters, who are merely the responders, not the initiators, are often then dissatisfied with their choices and many simply drop out of the voting process, which further increases voting partisanship.
So, if you think your vote doesn’t matter, think again – you get what you don’t vote for. Voters in the center are crucial to moderating our politicians. Not voting could lead to an even more extreme divide. Please, get out and vote for the lesser of the two evils to force some moderation. Better yet, join or volunteer for a group that represents Independents, centrists, moderates or the will of the entire electorate, to help put all Americans in the driver’s seat. And support voter rights protections, making voting easier and efforts that engage non-registered voters so that more of our voices can be heard.