Allie Mast is a newly-minted alumna of politics and international relations, with an American politics concentration and a minor in English. She will be attending the University at Buffalo School of Law in the fall

This post is the fifteenth 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.

With whose voice is public opinion spoken? In Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting & Political Stalemate, Morris P. Fiorina reveals the dyadic nature of American public opinion—splitting not along party lines, but between the political elite and ordinary citizens. In a robust analysis with statistical and historical evidence, Fiorina challenges our understanding of polarization and provides a sliver of optimism about the state of our politics: perhaps we are not as divided as we are led to believe. However, the absence of historical evidence in his concluding hypothesis regarding (now former) President Donald Trump, limits the credibility of this particular prediction.

Commonplace are the claims that the American people are polarized to an unprecedented degree. Fiorina contests such a notion, arguing instead that America itself has not changed, and that the ordinary American has not changed either. In fact, the ways that ordinary citizens think about policy issues ranging from poverty to business to religion to foreign affairs are largely the same today as they were in 1987 (29). If we turn the clock back to the 1970s and 1980s, we might find familiar battles. For example, we see threads of President Reagan’s crusade against the Warren and Burger courts in today’s landscape, namely with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Grutter v. Bollinger. We may also trace President Nixon’s efforts to unshackle the police to the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements of 2020. Although 2023 voters are faced with wildly different candidates than in the 1970s and 1980s, Fiorina reports that “in the aggregate, the public today looks much the same as the one that chose between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976” (29). By realizing that ordinary citizens have remained relatively similar in their reasons for division and the extent to which they divide, Fiorina lessens the sense of doom that we may feel about the state of our polarization.

Additionally, Fiorina challenges claims which compare America’s current polarization to
the polarization of the Civil War era, citing the sentiments of radio talk show host Dennis Prager.
Prager warns that:

It is time for our society to acknowledge a sad truth: America is currently fighting its
second Civil War. In fact, with the obvious and enormous exception of attitudes toward
slavery, Americans are more divided morally, ideologically[,] and politically today than
they were during the Civil War (17).

This author has long felt that such claims lack perspicacity, for how they appear to be rooted in history but are actually divorced from a historical context. Fiorina effectively addresses two problematic aspects of the above excerpt, first that “Americans are divided.” What Americans are divided? There may be truth to Prager’s warning if the Americans he speaks of are the political elites—elected officials and candidates, donors, party and issue activists (21). However, if “Americans” are understood to be the electorate, or what Fiorina calls “normal people,” the data clearly suggests that Americans are not deeply polarized (30). Furthermore, Fiorina addresses the claim that America is “currently fighting its second Civil War.” If the division we are facing today is of a civil war level, then surely this cannot be only our second. As Fiorina explains the falsity of Prager’s claim, he demonstrates the difference between a claim grounded in historical context, and one that merely refers to history.

Fiorina consistently provides statistical and historical evidence to back his assertions, rendering the instance where he fails to do so all the more stark. In the final chapter, Fiorina comments that President Trump might play a positive role as “someone with the potential to disrupt the sorted parties that underlie much of our political discontent and possibly even begin the construction of a new electoral coalition” (219). Fiorina also describes Trump as one who might drive a wedge through the factions of the Republican, and potentially even Democratic, parties (219). To an informed student observer, Fiorina’s prediction is logical. However, one is left to wonder whether there is a precedent for a candidate producing such disruption, especially since, by the end of the book, readers have almost been conditioned to expect a historical or statistical basis for his assertions. Furthermore, there lies a body of research on factions and their longevity, that is to say that Fiorinia’s hypothesis is not in uncharted waters. Even so, if Trump’s disruption of the parties would, indeed, be without precedent, then Fiorina fails to acknowledge the tentativeness of his remarks. Albeit a minor observation among a sea of fully supported claims, to close with a relatively unsubstantiated prediction weakens the credibility of his closing remarks.

Perhaps the problem with America’s political elite is not that they are polarized, but that they are ignorant—ignorant to the degree that the American electorate is polarized, ignorant to the real culprits of polarization, and ignorant to the extent of racial, ethnic, and labor violence in this country’s history. As a civics and history lesson might reveal, the disagreement and disorder that characterizes politics today is not historically unique, and furthermore, they are of a lower order of intensity compared to the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century (217). If William Neuman suggests that “things are never so bad that they can’t get worse”, then Fiorina offers that “it’s been worse!” Fiorina’s Unstable Majorities is not merely a call for hope, but a call for historical perspective and highsight. Whether partisan or independent, an engaged or passive observer, we must question the claims of politicos and pundits as they spout about public opinion, asking if their assertions are rooted in an accurate perception of the electorate and placed in the context of American history.


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