Things To Act
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
In Defense of "Polarization"
It seems I've been hearing/reading a lot of complaints lately about how the '50-50' division in the electorate is causing all sorts of bad things, from spam to global warming. The theory seems to be that if half the country is Republican and half Democrat, then the two halves will somehow have nothing in common and a second Civil War (or similarly catastrophic) will result if something isn't done (and the suggestions about what should be done usually seem to be comically self-interested).

Now perhaps if half the country really does have nothing in common with the other half, disaster may be brewing. However, it's quite a logical leap to go from 'electoral results are coming in close to 50-50 D/R' to 'half of the people in the country have nothing in common with the other half.' For starters, plenty of people don't bother voting in the first place, and thus can be presumed to be satisfied with either party. Next, many people vote more based on the issues of the moment (economy, Iraq, etc), regardless of long term ideological outlook (or long term rationality). Then there's the fact that American parties tend to be quite moderate compared to other countries (in part as a result of our electoral system, which rewards broad coalitions). Finally, partisan identification can be quite variable--many (the majority, probably) will never switch, but some do as circumstances change (and circumstances are always changing--the defining issues of the moment are different than those of 20, 40, or 60 years ago, and will be different still in 20 years).

So 50-50 election returns aren't by definition indication of divisive polarization. On the contrary, they may be quite good. After all, our system (in theory) is supposed to enact the will of the majority. In addition, we tend to like moderate results over extreme ones. Hence, a 50-50 split might be evidence that the system is working quite well--both parties are putting forth positions that are so competitive that swing voters are being listened to more than ever. If one party drifts away from the median voter, the other party should be able to, with minor corrections at most, amass a majority and win the next election. 50-50 elections mean that both parties are competitive enough that majority will matters--60-40 elections would mean that a good chunk of the moderate swing voters could be safely ignored, and policies that are more ideologically extreme would be enacted.

Of course, the situation may be slightly more complex than that (particularly given that median voter theory works best on single-dimension policies, while governance is depressingly multidimensional). And one may have strong objections to the resulting policy that is enacted--but that simply indicates that that person strongly disagrees with the American median voter. And the solution to that is either to mobilize like-minded nonvoters or to change the minds of a significant number of other voters (or, perhaps, to abandon the notion of majority rule in the American polity).

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