A Book Review of Unstable Majorities

Have the American people become polarized into two partisan camps, representing fundamentally different visions for the future of our country?  If you listen to the cable news networks, that would certainly be the takeaway.  But Stanford professor Morris Fiorina challenges that conventional wisdom in his book, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate.

Unstable Majorities is the culmination of a theme Fiorina has been arguing for some time.  He believes that while the two political parties have sorted themselves ideologically, and in the process become highly polarized and more extreme ideologically, they do not reflect the views of normal Americans, i.e., those not in the political class.

His strongest evidence is polling data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys.  ANES was formally established in 1977 but has polling data back to 1948.  In a series of questions on each survey, respondents are asked to describe their views on about a dozen issues based on a conservative- liberal scale of 1-7 with 4 being the most moderate view.  On every single issue for the entire 50 years of the survey, the responses form a steep bell curve around the 4 response.

A recent Dallas Morning News-UT poll found the same ideological moderation in Texas with those describing themselves as moderate or only slightly liberal or conservative constituting a majority of Texans.

The polling data is also clear that as the parties have become more ideologically extreme, their support among the American people has deteriorated.  According to Gallup, those refusing to identify with either political party became a plurality in 2006 and recently, for the first time, a majority of Americans eschewed both political parties.

Fiorina discusses the various factors that have led to the disconnect between the ideologically extreme political class and the American people generally – social media, the primary system, gerrymandering, agenda-driven media, etc.  In many ways, Lee Drutman’s book from last year, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, builds on Fiorina’s work.

Fiorina’s concern, similar to Drutman’s, is that when neither of the dominant parties even come close to representing a majority of Americans, they behave in increasingly erratic ways, slaves to primary bases that do not even vaguely reflect the country as a whole.  As a result, they are unable to address the real challenges facing the country and instead over-reach, pursuing an ideologically extreme agenda based on a self-delusory mandate. That forces moderates to step in periodically and take away the keys ‒ but, unfortunately, have no alternative but to give them to the other drunk.

Fiorina wrote Unstable Majorities in 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.  But his observations have only become more prescient over the last four years.  He, like Drutman, believes that some fundamental change is both necessary and inevitable.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  And when more than half of the American people feel that neither party represents their views, someone, some group, is going to fill that vacuum.

Note:  If you do not have time to read Fiorina’s book, but would like to hear him briefly explain his premise, he does so in this podcast.  Also, Michael Smerconish has a good discussion entitled the Exhausted Majority in a recent podcast based largely on Fiorina’s work.

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