October 31, 2004

The parties, not people, are furious

This excellent article appeared on the Perspective page of today's Baltimore Sun...

The parties, not people, are furious
Consensus: Despite talk of a divisive campaign that has widened the gap between voters on key issues, experts say that 'Americans agree on many more things than they disagree about.'
By Michael Hill
Sun Staff

Conventional wisdom holds that this is a bitterly divided country, that whoever wins the presidency on Tuesday will face a nation split right down the middle, coming out of a campaign that has widened the cultural and political canyon that separates the two sides.

But, truth be told, most of us agree with one another a lot more than we realize. It's our political system that is divided - and divisive - not the country.

"We have a really polarized political class, but the country as a whole is not nearly as polarized," says Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford University.

Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees. "The general level of polarization in the country is probably overblown," he says. "I think that polarization is real, but it is mainly party polarization."

So does Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "Our country has always been divided in one way or another - ethnically, urban-rural, sectionally," he says. "Now we see a kind of cultural divide. People tend to make too much of it. Americans agree on many more things than they disagree about."

The problem is that for a number of reasons, the process of choosing candidates has been handed over to the very people who are most likely to be to the far left or far right on the issues, 20 percent or so of the population. So it is not surprising that such candidates emerge from that process.

"People's positions are not polarized," says Fiorina, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who has just published Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. "It's the political choices they have that are polarized."

The argument is that the vast majority of the American people have broad agreements on many of the most contentious issues, but they are rarely allowed to vote for a candidate who shares those views.

This means that the person who takes the oath of office on Jan. 20 has the opportunity to move to the middle and govern by consensus. But, he will do that at his political peril, as he will risk alienating the most vocal and visible of the people who put him in office.

The war in Iraq is by its very nature a polarizing problem.

"One thing that will happen is that whoever wins, there will be the usual spirit of sportsmanship, a rallying around him that will stretch on to the inaugural," says James McGregor Burns, professor at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership which is named after him.

"There will be a period of people coming back together, but the problem is the intractability of the situation in Iraq," Burns says. "I think given the Vietnam War as something of a precedent or indicator, the Iraq situation is simply going to divide people more and more."

The challenge for the winner will be to seek out the kind of consensus on Iraq that researchers say exists on other issues that are considered fundamentally polarizing.

Abortion is a good example. One side calls it murder, the other a fundamental human right. Rarely does a Republican emerge who does not call for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, while most Democrats are afraid to advocate restrictions on abortion of any kind.

But Layman says that polls show broad agreement among the populace.

"A clear majority of American people favors abortion rights in the first trimester, perhaps with some restrictions like parental consent for teenagers," he says. "Once you get to late-term abortions, those figures stand on their head.

"In the second trimester, about two-thirds of the people are opposed to allowing abortions. And when you get to the third trimester, it is between three-quarters and four-fifths are in clear opposition," he says.

"That's what the American public chooses, but it is not the choice they are offered," Layman says. "It's either no abortion under any circumstances, or abortion on demand. When the choice is so polarized, it makes the country appear to be more polarized."

A variety of changes in the way the country conducts it politics has contributed to this situation.

"The parties are now sorted out better ideologically," Fiorina says. "You don't have the conservative Southern Democrats any more. And the old-time machines - who were in it for the money and jobs - are gone," he says. "The people in the parties today are ideologues. They are in it for the politics."

Though it was seen as a populist reform, the move to primaries to choose nominees exacerbated these ideological differences. The party regulars dominate the primaries so that candidates have to jump through their ideological hoops to get to the general election. In the old smoke-filled rooms, the party bosses might be more inclined to choose a centrist candidate who could win - and deliver patronage - rather than an ideologue they all agreed with.

Another reason for the polarization that must be chalked up to the law of unintended consequences is campaign finance reform. "The new campaign finance laws make activists more important," Layman says. "You can't get huge soft-money contributions anymore, so you have to have a wide base of people willing to give small contributions. Ideological activists are even more important in that context."

As the election nears, particularly when it is as close as this one, instead of moving to the middle, candidates tend to focus on their ideological base, trying to make sure that this solid block of voters turns out.

The whole system seems designed to produce the polarization so many decry.

"There is this thesis that centrist candidates depress voter turnout," says Georgia Sorenson, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Burns Academy of Leadership. "I was actually excited about this election, as there were real differences between the candidates. It looks at though voter turnout will be high, people were involved again. It seemed ideal.

"But when you look at the other side, what happens when one of them loses and you have this huge group of people who were invested in the election, who had not participated before, you have a truly divided scenario," she says. "I think that's a problem I really hadn't anticipated."

Fiorina points to California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example of someone who has tapped into the broad consensus in the middle and is using that to govern what had been a polarized state quite effectively.

"But he would have never made it through a Republican primary," Fiorina says, noting that Schwarzenegger - who came into office under the odd recall system that dumped Democratic Gov. Gray Davis - was under attack by party stalwarts for his liberal social views. "It took a fluke in the process to transcend that."

Layman points to the success of Ross Perot's quixotic candidacy in 1992. "Here was someone who had no experience governing, who was not running on either major party ticket, who was a little bit quirky - at one point he even dropped out of the race - and he still gets 19 percent of the vote. I think that's because he was somebody who represented the center of American politics."

Layman says the parties have such people but, as Fiorina said of Schwarzenegger, they never make it through the primaries.

"Somebody like a John McCain or even a Joe Lieberman who are fairly traditional when it comes to cultural issues, but not necessarily hard-line, and are in favor of a strong military and defense, and also in favor of using government in a positive way to improve education and provide social welfare," Layman says. "I think that's about where the average American is."

Bill Clinton is noted as someone who moved to the center, particularly on domestic issues, and, after a few bruising battles, was able to isolate the ideologues of the Republican party, remaining popular even after the Monica Lewinsky mess in part because his political enemies turned it into an ideological battle.

Like Clinton, Tuesday's winner will face a Congress that comes out of this polarized political process. Unless he can make clear the political peril of opposing his middle-of-the-road proposals - as Schwarzenegger has done in California - the opposition party will want to beat him simply because he is on the other side.

Sorenson says the president should look for issues around which he can build consensus. "He needs to find a task that will bring some healing," she says.

Burns contends that because he is not saddled with a record in Iraq, Kerry has a better chance of pulling this off. He points to Richard Nixon as someone who succeeded at this despite the divisiveness of Vietnam before Watergate pulled him down.

Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins says whoever wins can do as he chooses - access this broad center or head off in an ideologically charged direction - without worrying about Congress.

"The nature of the presidency has changed," he says. "He does not depend on Congress. He has a host of unilateral instruments he can use. Look at Clinton's second term. He was impeached. He got nothing through Congress. But much of his agenda was implemented through the bureaucracy, through regulatory review and executive orders."

Ginsberg notes that Bush invaded Iraq making clear that he didn't need congressional approval, something presidents have claimed since Harry Truman decided not to ask for a declaration of war on North Korea, saying his position as commander in chief and the United Nations charter gave him necessary authority.

Copyright (c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun
Posted by Andy at October 31, 2004 08:31 PM to the Politics category
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