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Moderate and polarized

In the inaugural rituals just completed, we pledge fealty to the concept of national unity. The commentariat, though, raises the specter of polarization. The election, the commentators contend, reflected deep divisions in a nation said to be highly polarized.In the inaugural rituals just completed, we pledge fealty to the concept of national unity. The commentariat, though, raises the specter of polarization. The election, the commentators contend, reflected deep divisions in a nation said to be highly polarized.

The implication of the polarization thesis is that Americans are becoming more extreme in their views, less moderate in their outlook. In Culture Wars, a slim book that should be read by every political practitioner, Morris Fiorina argues persuasively that public attitudes on a wide range of issues are no more extreme and no more polarized than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

He also makes clear the real difference between a nation that is deeply divided and highly polarized on the one hand and a country that is evenly divided on the other. While many pundits seem to conflate the two terms, “evenly” divided and “deeply” divided are not the same thing by any means.

Deeply divided implies two groups of Americans with vastly different, indeed extreme, views on issues. That is not America today. Americans remain moderate, not extreme, with most people clumping in the middle on most issues.

At the broadest level, this is clear when we query voters about their ideology. In the past election’s exit polls, a 45 percent plurality identified themselves as moderate. A dozen years ago, it was 49 percent.

Americans’ moderation is also manifest in responses to a bevy of poll questions about individual issues. For example, in 1970 the University of Michigan asked voters whether they thought the government or individuals should pay for their healthcare. Answers were on a seven-point scale, and 25 percent came down clearly on the side of a system paid for by government while 21 percent strongly favored a private system. Thirteen percent were right in the middle.

Thirty years later, after a decade of intense debate about the role of government in healthcare, voters were less polarized and more moderate. Sixteen percent strongly supported a government solution, and 10 percent just as strongly favored a private system, with 19 percent right in the middle. Thus, in direct contrast to those who see the national divide getting deeper, the number with extreme views on the place of government in healthcare declined by 20 points while pure moderation increased.

Of course, moderation is not always a race to the middle. In 1972, 19 percent of voters felt strongly that “a woman’s place was in the home” while 31 percent were equally adamant that “women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry and government.” Nearly 30 years later, just 3 percent were firm in believing women should stay at home, whereas 56 percent strongly supported equality between the sexes — evidence of a nation growing together, not one growing apart.

However, while moderation reigns, America is becoming more polarized in one central respect.

Our views, particularly our political views, are becoming more coherent, and that coherence ratchets up the intensity of conflict. When cleavages are “crosscutting”, when there are no permanent allies, when conflict arises across many fronts, the taste for all-out warfare wanes. When there are folks who are with you on some issues but against you on others, the struggles feel less intense. But when positions are coherent, when there seems like only one divide, when it is always the same set of people facing off against one another, regardless of the issue, then real (political) warfare breaks out.

Today’s political warfare is less the result of deep divisions than of consistent divisions, less the result of extreme views than of coherent views, less the result of changed attitudes than of changed alliances. American politics is both moderate and polarized.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.