Kyle Chu is a senior politics and international relations major (American politics concentration), with minors in music and statistics.

This post is the fourteenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Unstable Majoritieswhich includes not only a background on the book, but also some amazingly helpful resources.


Conversations are the lifeblood of community. A community comprised of good listeners, wise discerners, and neighborly responders will be able to face the problems of its time, growing stronger as a result. On the other hand, when a community’s members put up psychological walls against the voices of differing views and begin to shout their own views without discernment, the problems of the community grow stronger while the community itself languishes. Is America a conversationalist nation? That is, does America’s political infrastructure allow the voices of every group in the U.S. to be heard and effective? Morris Fiorina, in his Unstable Majorities, answers in the negative: America’s two parties have sorted, leading to issue and affective polarization that hamper bipartisan deliberation. Moreover, a glaring discontinuity exists between the respective agendas of the two parties and the desires of the American electorate. Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves his readers without any substantive solutions to these crises.

First, the Democratic and Republican parties have sorted, meaning that both parties have become ideologically homogeneous (i.e. only liberal Democrats and only conservative Republicans) (47). Sorting has produced partisan polarization in both the policy arena and in the emotional arena (i.e. affective polarization). Regarding partisan polarization surrounding policy, abortion is a good example. According to the General Social Survey, before 1992, Democrats and Republicans did not diverge significantly concerning the average number of circumstances in which they thought “it possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion.” (50) However, by 2014, the averaged difference grew to 2 circumstances, with Democrats favoring more circumstances than the Republicans (52). Regarding affective polarization, Fiorina quotes Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes: “Democrats and Republicans not only increasingly dislike the opposing party, but also impute negative traits to the rank-and-file of the out-party…affective polarization…exceeds polarization based on other social cleavages…” (60) Thus, the two parties have created a zero-sum scenario: partisans, particularly the partisan leadership, tend to live, move, and have their being with people of the same mind, voice, and disdain for the other party (49, 62), and such partisans see the other party as an uncompromisable threat. Accordingly, bipartisan conversation suffers.

Second, discontinuities exist between the party leadership and the broader electorate. As Figure 2.6 on page 24 portrays, three surveys, the ANES, the NY Times/CBS News, and the General Social Survey, all show that Americans, in contrast with the party sorting and polarization of the political class, have remained ideological centrists for at least the past 4 decades. The growing asymmetry between the political class and the broader electorate invariably has led to an asymmetry between party platforms and the desires of the populace and to the burgeoning of the “independent” partisan category (25, 99, 105). Fiorina condenses this complex relationship with the concept of party overreach: because of the close party divide, each party must win a majority of independents in order to win majorities in government (93). Accordingly, during elections, the parties “soften some of their core positions and downplay some of the issues of most concern to their base supporters.” (91) However, after elections, parties focus on the agendas of their respective bases, which alienate the marginal supporters (91, 105). For example, President Obama focused on core issues of the Democratic base during his presidency, such as climate change, gun control, and immigration, even though the broader electorate was concerned much more about the economy, jobs, and terrorism (101-102). Such discontinuities indicate a failure in conversation between the party system and the electorate.

Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves the reader with this pessimistic outlook of the American political infrastructure without proposing any substantive solutions. He does suggest the possibility of Donald Trump catalyzing a party realignment:

Trump might play a positive role as a de-sorter, someone with the potential to disrupt the sorted parties that underlie much of our current political discontent and possibly even begin the construction of a new electoral coalition. By taking positions on trade, entitlements, and foreign policy that violate Republican orthodoxy, Trump might drive a wedge between Republican factions. By supporting a big infrastructure program he might drive a wedge between gentry liberals and the blue-collar factions of the Democrats (219). However, bleak indeed the American situation must be if political scientists are placing any considerable stock of hope in Donald Trump, a man who is not unfamiliar with unevidenced invective, hyperbolic name-calling, and alienating propaganda in remedying the demise of political conversation and deliberation in America. In other words, Fiorina critiques the plight of American politics with nuance and perspicacity; however, he stops there, ending his book like a critic with no feet.

In Unstable Majorities, Morris Fiorina effectively unveils the failure of American party politics in facilitating crosscutting conversations across the American populace, especially between the political class and the “ordinary” citizen. Party sorting has intensified partisan polarization pertaining to both issues and emotion, and the two parties no longer represent with reasonable accuracy the desires of the American electorate. Unfortunately, Fiorina leaves us remediless in restoring the American conversation. We must seek out the solution to U.S. polarization and the breakdown of representation. Otherwise, our problems will only grow, and we will only grow weaker.


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