Commentary Magazine

Polarized America?

To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson disputes my assertion (along with Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope) in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (2005) that the polarization evident in the nation’s political class has only a faint reflection in the public at large [“How Divided Are We?,” February]. As a longtime admirer of Mr. Wilson’s work, I am naturally concerned when his take on an issue differs from mine, but I believe that his criticisms are the result of a misunderstanding.

Mr. Wilson discounts our finding that policy differences between voters in so-called red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states are really quite small, commenting that “inferring the views of individual citizens from the gross results of presidential balloting is a questionable procedure.” Indeed it is, which is why we explicitly avoided it.

We offered detailed anal-yses of the policy views expressed by voters in 2000 and 2004, and found (contrary to the conclusions of pundits like Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, and others) surprisingly small differences between the denizens of the blue and the red states. As we emphasize repeatedly, people’s choices (as expressed, say, in presidential balloting) can be polarized even while their positions on issues are not. Moreover, other studies find little evidence of growing polarization no matter how one slices and dices the population— affluent/poor,white/black/ brown, old/young, male/female, well educated/less educated, and so on.

Like many before him, Mr. Wilson seems to confuse partisan sorting with polarization. The Democrats have largely shed their conservative Southern wing, and Republicans have largely shed their liberal “Rockefeller” wing. As a result, the parties are more distinctive even as the aggregate distribution of ideology and stances on issues among the citizenry remains much the same as in the past.

Mr. Wilson also criticizes our analysis of Americans’ views on the specific matter of abortion. He notes that “70 percent of those who thought abortion should always be legal voted for Al Gore or John Kerry, while over 70 percent of those who thought it should always be illegal voted for George Bush.” True enough, but he does not mention that Gallup repeatedly finds a majority of the American people placing themselves between such polar categories; they think abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” Even if we focus on avowed partisans, in 2005 only 30 percent of Democrats thought abortion should always be legal, and fewer than 30 percent of Republicans thought it should always be illegal.

One can always question the accuracy of a particular survey, but the cumulative weight of the evidence on abortion is overwhelming. Contrary to the wishes of activists on both sides, the American people prefer a middle ground.

I share Mr. Wilson’s concern about the potentially harmful consequences of polarization. But I remain convinced that if Americans are offered competent political candidates with problem-solving orientations, the shallow popular roots of polarization will be exposed for all to see.

Morris P. Fiorina

Stanford University

Stanford, California


To the Editor:

As one of the scholars criticized by James Q. Wilson for thinking that polarization “is almost entirely confined to a small number of political elites and members of Congress,” I feel that I need to correct some logical slippage in his article. Mr. Wilson should have more clearly distinguished between what political scientists call attitudinal polarization and party sorting.

Attitudinal polarization is when the public is more divided on issues than it has been in the past. A greater degree of partisan sorting, by contrast, means that the people who identify and vote for a particular party are more likely to share the stated views of that party.

Mr. Wilson writes that polarization consists of “intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group.” This, he feels, has “spread beyond the political elites to influence the opinions and attitudes of ordinary Americans” and “assumed the form of a culture war.” What concerns him is clearly attitudinal polarization.

But the examples he brings to support his thesis—like data showing that as history marches on, Presidents are less likely to be approved of by people from the other party, or the fact that opponents of abortion are more likely to be Republicans and supporters more likely to be Democrats than in the past—are evidence only of sorting according to party. No scholar I know of disputes that this has occurred, but most scholars also agree that polarization on issues is not widespread.

Will party sorting or the existence of politically segmented media eventually lead to attitudinal polarization? The jury is still out.

John H. Evans

University of California

San Diego, California


To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson makes a thoughtful case that significant numbers of Americans regard people with whom they disagree as not only wrong but criminally wrong. I wonder, though.

Elections and polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans support moderate political positions, and are willing to listen and learn. Hillary Clinton, who once famously spoke of a vast right-wing conspiracy in this country, went on to get herself elected to the Senate, where she has played by the rules and, flying in the face of her party’s core constituency, has consistently maintained that the invasion of Iraq was appropriate. One may suspect her motives, but the fact that she was compelled to succeed within the establishment rather than fail outside, while Howard Dean was exiled to guard duty in the Democrats’ junkyard, is evidence of healthy depolarizing forces in our society. Even that odd political event, the election of middle-of-the-road Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in contentious California, attests that the American genius for moderation is healthy and at work.

Walter Schimmerling

Arlington, Virginia


To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson seems worried about dissent and diversity when it comes to our foreign and defense policy. He concludes his essay by warning that “polarization is a force that can defeat us.”

But the public expression of diverse opinions on any topic, including national security, is valuable and necessary. It helps policymakers come up with new and better ideas. The role of a loyal opposition is to present such ideas, as well as better ways of carrying out policies supported by a consensus.

Ironically, in spite of the very real differences between the two political parties that Mr. Wilson brings out so well, the Democrats have failed in their main responsibility to present new and viable alternatives to Republican policies.

Bruce Brager

Arlington, Virginia


To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson is correct that political debate in this country is often acrimonious and unproductive. The reasons he cites for this division are certainly valid, but he misses the main, underlying cause.

Many of today’s leaders are still fighting the culture wars of the late 1960’s. The next generation of leaders will be much less inclined to debate hotly about issues like abortion and gay rights. Future generations will be much more inclined to seek practical solutions, not deeply ideological ones, to the country’s problems.

Most younger Democrats have grown up with a greater appreciation for the bottom line and for pragmatism. They still may fight for more entitlements than Republicans, but they realize that programs like welfare must be held accountable financially. Likewise, most younger Republicans are a great deal more socially liberal than their parents, having been exposed through television and the Internet to a broader spectrum of humanity than they would otherwise have known. As I see it, polarization will recede as the electorate regresses toward socially liberal, fiscally conservative centrists who will increasingly find a consensus on many issues.

Gary Lazarski

Chicago, Illinois


To the Editor:

We believe that the evidence clearly supports James Q. Wilson’s conclusion that polarization in America has grown, and not only among elites but also among ordinary citizens. We agree that the primary cause of polarization is the changing politics in Congress, in particular the increased ideological homogeneity within both major parties.

As Mr. Wilson and others have noted, in the immediate postwar decades, both the Democratic and Republican parties had in their ranks significant numbers of ambitious politicians whose policy preferences were out of sync with the mainstream of their party. Such “partisan misfits” were nevertheless able to pursue successful political careers in Congress—until the last couple of decades. Our own research confirms that during the 1980’s, the number of “moderate” and “cross-pressured” members of Congress began to decline, in both parties and in both chambers. Some changed their behavior to vote with their party’s mainstream, others switched over to the party that was a better ideological fit, and still others were replaced in primaries or elections by more partisan candidates. The trend accelerated in the 1990’s, and today liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have all but disappeared from Capitol Hill.

Party leaders and their allies among the ideologically charged interest groups have come to play a much larger role in the selection of candidates, affecting the entire landscape in which our politics operate.

Jon R. Bond

Texas A&M University

College Station, Texas

Rich Fleisher

Fordham University

Bronx, New York


To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson, as usual, has it right. The nation is polarized, and increasingly so. The process perhaps began with the elites in Washington, but it has begun to metastasize around the country. On Capitol Hill, one sees not just partisan divisions but tribal politics. Walking the halls of Congress these days reminds me more of the former Yugoslavia than of the Congress I knew when I first arrived in Washington in 1969. The center was then dominant; now it is virtually nonexistent.

Mr. Wilson is also right that the danger of polarization is particularly acute when it comes to visions of America’s role in the world. Here, too, the divisions are more than ideological. Consider the harshly negative response of Republican leaders like Tom DeLay to President Clinton’s military action in Bosnia and Kosovo, and imagine what those same leaders would have said if the action had been taken by a President George Bush; do the reverse exercise with Democratic leaders and the campaign in Iraq. It becomes clear that the identity of the messenger can now be as important as the nature of the message.

The question Mr. Wilson does not address is what to do about all this. Structural solutions are limited in scope and effect. But there are some ways to ameliorate the divisions and begin to re-create a center that will reflect the larger consensus on many issues held by non-activist Americans. I agree that reforming our congressional districting arrangements is not a panacea, but it would help at the margins. A more deliberative legislative process in Congress could also help, as Thomas Mann and I argue in our forthcoming book, The Broken Branch. And we might want to stretch our minds and consider more novel ideas, including perhaps adding a significant number of at-large members of Congress who would not have to run for election in homogeneous districts filled with like-minded partisans.

But a broader change in cultural outlook will still be necessary. Those who identify with one or the other of the tribes must recognize that the looming War of the Roses in American political life could damage or destroy us all.

Norman Ornstein

American Enterprise Institute

Washington, D.C.


James Q. Wilson writes:

Morris P. Fiorina and John H. Evans think that the public has sorted itself out rationally into the two major political parties but that this sorting has not affected attitudes on public policies. To believe this, they must not listen to talk radio, read liberal or conservative blogs, or pay any attention to poll data showing a vastly increased gap between the two parties on key public issues.

In 2004, 89 percent of Republicans but only 12 percent of Democrats approved of President George W. Bush. That gap is the widest that poll data have ever shown. In earlier decades, the percentage of Demo-crats saying they approved of Presidents Reagan, Ford, Nixon, and Eisenhower was three to four times greater. Today, over two-thirds of all Republicans but far fewer than half of all Democrats agree with the view that military strength is the best way to ensure peace. Two-thirds of all Republicans but only one-fourth of all Democrats say they would be willing to fight for America whether it is right or wrong.

If you look at self-styled liberals and conservatives rather than at party affiliation, the same difference emerges. In 1972, over 40 percent of liberals approved of President Nixon; in 2004, only 24 percent approved of President Bush. In 1968, over 54 percent of liberals said we should either increase or maintain our troops in Vietnam. In 2004, over 80 percent of liberals disapproved of our war in Iraq.

On the central issues of the times, liberals and Democrats are more opposed to conservatives and Republicans today than they were three decades earlier. This reflects a profound change in attitudes, and not simply the tidying up of party affiliation. In fact, the deep differences between Democrats and Republicans have helped widen this split in popular attitudes, an argument that has been supported by the research of Marc Hetherington and Jeffrey D. Grynaviski.

My view differs from that of my critics because I think polarized elite opinion helps create polarized public opinion while, apparently, they do not. As Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders have shown in their work an ideological alignment, average Americans are as divided today as politically active Americans were divided 40 years ago. The mechanisms by which this happens are well known. Conservatives believe what they hear on Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show and what they read on Power Line; liberals believe what they hear on National Public Radio or what they read in the New York Times or

You cannot disprove this view by citing poll data from red and blue states for the obvious reason that these states are too large and internally divided to make any judgment possible. The coastal counties of California are blue, the interior ones are red. On balance, California is a Blue state, but it is so deeply divided that when Mr. Fiorina looks at state-level policy views they strike him as “moderate.”

Nor is my view harmed by what Walter Schimmerling points out about Hillary Clinton’s effort to portray herself as a moderate. Presidential candidates seek marginal votes in a divided nation. If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she knows almost every Democrat will vote for her. Her task, then, is to pick up a few Republican votes in order to win, and so, taking her base for granted, she goes after voters who believe in God and support the military.

I agree with Jon R. Bond and Rich Fleisher that ideologically charged interest groups have become much more important than political parties in shaping the choice of candidates and framing the issues we debate.

Norman Ornstein has it quite right when he says that “the identity of the messenger can now be as important as the nature of the message.” Key Republican members of Congress were harshly critical of President Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, but very supportive of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The New York Times, by contrast, urged Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo but opposed, both editorially and in most of its news columns, our invasion of Iraq.

Messengers have become more divided, and their messages, via talk radio and blogs, now reach many more people. And so people are more divided as well.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.