Thursday, 16 September 2004


Today’s free book in the mail: Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America by Mo Fiorina. It looks promising, is not obscenely overpriced, and might be a fun supplement for either Public Opinion or Intro in the spring.

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).

Friday, 22 October 2004

Dumb de-dumb dumb

Taegan Goddard wonders if voters are stupid; Andrew Cline replies:

I do not believe that citizens are lazy or stupid. The problems of the electorate are multiple and complex. But let me suggest one possibility among many why Americans appear to know so little about their own government and fail to participate in its running: We are fat and happy.

There are a number of different perspectives on the importance of political knowledge; in particular, the “rational public” perspective of Samuel Popkin and the “affective intelligence” perspective advanced by a number of scholars suggest that political knowledge is relatively unimportant, although there are many scholars who challenge both theses. That said, I reach a roughly similar conclusion to Andrew’s on the last page of my dissertation:

[T]he desirability of a society in which political issues are so critically important that they require the attentiveness of large segments of the public seems relatively low; consider highly polarized societies like contemporary Israel and Venezuela, where it is unlikely there are any voters without opinions on the Palestinian peace process or on the soft-authoritarian Chávez regime, respectively, where the outcome of elections is literally a question of life or death in many voters’ minds. Perhaps we should count our blessings that the most salient mainstream debates in the United States today are over the future of entitlement programs for the elderly, the level of restriction that will be placed on abortion, and where and under what conditions same-sex relationships will be acknowledged by the government—and that our pluralist system permits voters to focus their interests on particular policies that directly interest them. This suggests that rather than creating institutions that might lead to a more conflicted or polarized society, the interest of democracy would be best served by giving citizens the tools to participate in public debate, but leaving it up to them whether their participation is strictly necessary. (132)

This also is another excellent opportunity to pimp the Signifying Nothing book of the month.