A moderate electorate and polarized politicians in the United States

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 10, 2010


The 2010 midterm election results highlight the deep polarization in Washington politics. A divided Congress—with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats with a slim majority in the Senate—will make it difficult for anyone to forge compromise. Criticized by Democrats who disliked his effort to build bipartisan support for his initiatives during his first two years, President Obama might still defy his party and seek common ground with Republicans. Yet, Republicans seem determine to make Obama a 4-year president, even if that means little legislative progress in the next two years.


The electorate is far less polarized than the partisan republican and democratic contingents in Washington. In fact, the real divide uncovered by the 2010 midterm elections is that between a moderate electorate that perceives the nation going in the wrong direction and the polarized political class trapped in divisive strategies and unable to deliver the moderate and incremental change favored by Americans.


Partisanship is at an all time high in Washington. The active role of news organizations as outlets for extremism—rather than as venues for voters to acquire more or less objective information—has fueled a language increasingly bitter and aggressive. Others have followed the strategy first championed by Fox News. MSNBC targets left-of-center voters. CNN has chosen to bring in pundits from both extremes of the political spectrum. Yet, in the process, the mass media has replaced news with views. Media polarization simply reflects a worrisome trend that began in Washington before.  Moderates from both parties have been replaced by extremists.


At least two reasons explain the weakening of centrists in Washington. First, gerrymandering has changed the logic of democracy in single member districts. The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are assigned to the 50 states proportional to their population. Every ten years, after the census, seats are re-allocated (new seat allocations will happen when the 2010 census results are released).  State legislatures redraw the districts in their states to reflect population shifts within the state and to accommodate additional seats gained as result of rapid population growth or seats lost because of lesser population growth in the state than in the nation as a whole.


State legislatures draw districts in function of accommodating the needs of incumbent members of the House of Representatives and favoring the majority party in the state legislature. The fact that Republicans control almost 2/3 of all state legislatures will give them an advantage over Democrats in redrawing districts before the 2012 election. The term ‘gerrymandering’ comes from a move by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry in the early 19th century to draw districts in favor of political allies, which means that this is not a new practice in the United States. Yet, better technology and much more knowledge of citizens’ preferences and behavior has made gerrymandering much more effective in recent years. The first software to gerrymander districts was used after the 1990 census. In 2000, gerrymandering became highly effective, creating many ‘safe’ republican and democratic districts. As a result, competitiveness has decreased substantially. In democracy, voters are empowered to choose politicians. With gerrymandering, politicians effectively choose the voters in their districts.


Another reason why the center has weakened is an unintended consequence of increased transparency and mass media. The fact that congressional committee work is transmitted live via cable television has shifted focus from law making and deliberation to television performance. Politicians always speak to the audience at hand. When there is no audience, they can focus on brokering compromise. But when the television cameras are turned on all day long, they are performing for their partisan electoral basis—and those with stronger feelings on specific issues are always more likely to tune in than moderate viewers—rather than sorting out differences to broker reasonable compromises that can be made into legislation.


Yet, data shows voters to be moderate, or at least not more polarized than normal. In November of 2008, 28% of Americans identified themselves as Republican, 37% as Democrats and 33% as Independents.  Those numbers are almost identical today (29, 34 and 33% respectively). Lower turnout in the midterm election explains why the Republicans won. Moderates who supported Obama and Democrats for Congress in 2008 had much lower turnout than Republicans. Disenchanted democrats also stayed home. 


In terms of priorities, Americans continue to be concerned primarily about the economy and unemployment. Jobs creation is the main issue in the minds of Americans.  The hard political talk in Washington signals a level of polarization that is not representative of a much more moderate America. Unfortunately, because moderate Americans stayed home in larger numbers than in 2008, and because politicians are choosing voters much more than voters choosing politicians, the 2010 midterm election results does not reflect the moderation of the American electorate. It over represents the polarized political process that has come to dominate Washington DC.