Nearly 50 years ago, sociologist Philip Converse published his landmark article “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in which he presented polling data showing that most American voters lacked coherent ideologies. Now, Emory University political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz has turned this notion on its head. In his important and persuasive book The Disappearing Center, he argues that voters today take their ideologies quite seriously. His analysis of survey data stretching back several decades leads him to believe that Americans “are more interested in politics, better informed about public affairs, and more politically active than at any time during the past half-century.” Everyone knows how polarized our politics have become. Abramowitz points out that this is so in large part because we have become more politically engaged.
Abramowitz’s findings refute the notion that polarization is only an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon foisted on a reluctant electorate. At the start of the 1960s, he observes, less than 40 percent of Americans identified as strongly partisan; by 2004, more than 60 percent did. The liberal and conservative ideologies have ossified in voters’ minds, and become inseparable from the parties they call home. Abramowitz’s survey data shows that the strength of the relationship between partisanship and ideology has nearly doubled over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, pace his title, the center has all but disappeared.
This is startling. The consensus view of American politics, especially among political operatives, holds that primaries are for base voters and general elections are for persuadable moderates, whose votes get politicians over the finish line. But today, if Abramowitz is right, base voters are where most of the action is.
An engaged public, as Abramowitz notes, is a sign of a healthy democracy—especially when the parties in power respond to that engagement. Yet as he recognizes in his closing pages, polarization presents serious problems for governance. American politics is structurally embedded with numerous anti-majoritarian features. In particular, in the Senate, states have power disproportionate to their population, and individual senators have immense capacity to stymie legislation. When its opponents are unified, the majority party can find it very difficult to accomplish much of anything, as the Democrats have learned over the past two years.
For whatever reason, Abramowitz ends up glossing over the perverse result of this dynamic: While moderate citizens are a diminishing class, moderate legislators have grown more powerful, sometimes playing roles of near-presidential importance. Because the Obama administration desperately needed Senator Joseph Lieberman’s vote to pass its health care bill last spring, for example, his opposition alone doomed a major provision that would have allowed uninsured Americans ages 55 to 64 to purchase Medicare coverage. The center may be disappearing in the electorate, but the same cannot be said of Washington. If the will of the majority is to prevail, then, as Abramowitz well knows, our political institutions must be reordered. Unfortunately, though he offers a trenchant analysis, he stops disappointingly short of even attempting to describe how this could be brought about.