Wednesday, 22 September 2004

Read this book

I read Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (previously mentioned here) last night—and, for a book by political scientists, it’s both exceptionally well-written and probably accessible to a general college-educated audience. What may be the most compelling thing about the book is that even though I knew pretty much all the evidence that was outlined by the authors, I was still floored by the evidence Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope bring to bear.

The core arguments will be (hopefully) relatively familiar to readers of this weblog: while political elites are increasingly polarized, the populace as a whole isn’t (and, if anything, are tending to converge on issue positions over time); the “red state-blue state” dichotomy is false; and the appearance of mass polarization is due largely to the relatively stark choices faced by voters today.

For good measure, the authors throw in some spatial voting theory to show that the increasing role of moral issues in voting behavior are due to changes in the political positions of the candidates themselves (or at least perceptions of those positions) rather than changes in the electorate. And they attribute these problems largely to the “amateurization” of political parties, which (they argue) have become rallying points for “purists” at the expense of moderation and the Downsian pursuit of the median voter—a phenomenon anyone who’s witnessed the vitriol hurled at the likes of John McCain and Zell Miller by their “fellow partisans” will surely attest to. The authors also delve into the pathologies of local politics, which tend to be even more captive to the whims of narrow interests.

Fiorina (writing alone, perhaps to insulate his more junior co-authors from having to defend these propositions on the job market) has a three-pronged prescription that he argues would lessen elite polarization: an end to partisan gerrymanders, opening the primary process to wider participation (and abolishing the use of party caucuses), and increasing voter turnout.

It’s a quick read—I read it in 90 minutes, although to be fair it is largely material from my field, so it might take the non-expert two hours. All in all I strongly recommend it to any serious student of politics (including, by definition, our readership).