Jackson Hazen is a senior studying politics & international relations, as well as Spanish.


This post is the sixteenth 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.

America today is more divided than ever before in our history, at least that is what many politicians, reporters, and even members of the public would say when asked about the state of American politics. But despite our common assumptions and what we are told in our headlines, how divided are we really? Morris Fiorina argues in Unstable Majorities that the American electorate is not any more divided now than we were 20, 40, or even 100 years ago. Fiorina outlines how party sorting has resulted in a large portion of the electorate faced with choosing between two parties that nominate and run practically identical candidates year after year. The result is an America that seems divided because of the dramatically sorted parties, when in actuality there remains a large portion of the population that lies not on either end of the political spectrum, but clustered around the middle. Although not quite reaching as far to offer solutions, Fiorina does a good job of calming a panicked electorate with his critical yet unbiased approach, allowing civility to reign over tribalism.

To confront assumptions about a divided electorate Fiorina focuses on the rise in the number of voters who self-report as independents. This view directly contrasts with the most common assumptions about American politics, which is that voters have been running towards either end of the extremes of either party, increasing the number of people who identify as either Republican or Democrat. Fiorina points out, “…it is partisans, not independents, who have lost ground: independents are now the largest single ‘partisan’ category” (25). This finding is a key takeaway from the book because it reinforces Fiorina’s point that Americans are not as divided as one might think. As elections have passed the number of independents has not fallen, if anything the number of voters registering as “decline to state” (DtS) or another term for independent has risen. This shift is seen in states with party registration, where DtS registration rose from 12 to 18 percent between 1976 and 2008 (25). Fiorina makes it clear that, if independents are growing and make up a plurality of registered voters, then America is not becoming more divided than before.

Despite the pragmatic outlook Fiorina provides, he does little in the way of offering solutions to the growing resentment directed towards elites, the media, and the system. Addressing the often-inaccurate characterization of those who voted for Trump in 2016, Fiorina points out the growing frustration with the nation’s elites that is prevalent in both the Republican and Democrat camps (218). Many are cold to traditional media and its straying from objectivity, and even more believe that the system itself is to blame, but Fiorina does not offer suggestions for what political scientists can do to solve these problems. By closing with, “For now, at least, an era of unstable majorities continues” (223), Fiorina paints a bleaker picture of American democracy that seems to be headed in the same direction as it has been for the past 15 years.

The perceived polarization of American politics has destroyed civil discourse, but Fiorina explains why this view is mistaken. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many pundits and journalists made sweeping generalizations and statements that sought to portray the election as proof that a large portion of Americans were racist, sexist, or xenophobic. However, Fiorina takes a more calculated and realistic approach, he clarifies that voters more likely were responding to the economic and social conditions of the time, much like in other periods of divided government in U.S. history (163-166). Trump’s election was a continuation of the status quo of 2012, Fiorina states, “…in a majoritarian system like ours, small change in the vote can have enormous consequences for party control of our governing institutions and the policies they produce” (172). Trump being elected in 2016 was likely the result of small shifts in the electorate and not an underlying racist or sexist American populace. To be sure, criticisms of Trump and the way he ran his campaign are fair, but Fiorina makes sure to quell generalizations of the electorate that do more harm than good to our political system.

Unstable Majorities provides a fresh outlook on a system that we often misjudge or mischaracterize as deeply polarized. By allowing readers to see the political landscape for what it is rather than what we perceive it to be, Fiorina allows us to look past destructive tribalism and recognize that we are not as divided as we may seem. American politics is not headed for disaster like so many like to forecast, the system is resilient and has made it through tough times before. While Fiorina does not offer solutions, he paves the path for readers to do so. By understanding our similarities, and how they cut across our perceived differences, we can help guide the course of American politics. What happens in the next five or ten years is up to our response to the system – our willingness to collaborate and communicate – that is the way forward for American politics. It all starts with the understanding that America is not divided but disconnected.


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