For better or worse, the political middle ground in Washington is gone, says author Alan Abramowitz, and elected officials find themselves appealing more frequently to their party's activists. According to his new book, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy, it's those who care most about politics who have the most influence in Washington and who also tend to reflect the deepest partisan divisions. Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, recently spoke with U.S. News about the causes of Washington gridlock and why polarization may actually be good for democracy. Excerpts:
What is the political center doing?
What the center's doing is, basically, not much. Moderates and independents are generally the least interested, knowledgeable, [or] involved segment of the population. Their influence is not nearly as great as the influence of those who are more involved and interested, who tend to be more polarized.
Has it always been this way?
Not to this extent. In the past, there was more of an overlap between the parties. The differences between Democrats and Republicans weren't nearly as sharp as they are today. Today, there are almost no liberal Republicans; there aren't very many moderate Republicans; and there aren't very many truly conservative Democrats. In fact, in Congress, there's basically no overlap at all between the parties. This makes any kind of bipartisan cooperation very difficult and reinforces that if members of Congress are viewed as cooperating with the other side, that can get them in trouble at home with the party base. We're seeing that this year in some of the primary elections.
So, are more people more, or less, engaged now than they used to be?
When we look at survey data and voting data, [we see] that people are actually more interested now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. They're getting involved to a greater degree. More people are voting. More people also are talking about politics, and giving money, and putting out yard signs, and doing things like that. All the indicators we have show that polarization has actually contributed to increased engagement in politics, because people do perceive important differences and they think that there are big stakes in elections.
So polarization is healthy for our democracy?
Well, up to a point. I think that a certain degree of polarization is healthy in a democracy. It clarifies the choices people have in elections, and it helps voters to hold the parties accountable for their performance. It's healthier to have parties that actually stand for something than to have the situation that we had 50 or 40 years ago, when you really didn't know what the parties stood for because there was so much overlap between them.
If the center's uninterested, why would it get involved now?
We have seen some increase in involvement, but you're always going to have a certain segment of the population that doesn't care about politics, that is more concerned about their daily lives. That's probably inevitable. What could get them more involved is if they began to better understand how these decisions or how these policies are actually affecting their lives, which they are.
Don't people get discouraged by the gridlock caused by polarization?
Sure. One of the problems that we have is kind of a contradiction between this party system, based on these two very different, sharply divided parties, and some of our political institutions. [Those institutions] were not created with this type of party system in mind or with some of the rules that exist, such as the filibuster in the Senate. The main reason for gridlock is not polarization. It's really that we have these anti-majoritarian rules and institutions.
How has the media affected polarization?
The media reinforces it because there are so many choices. Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, people can pick and choose where they get their information, and they tend to go to media outlets that are compatible with their own political orientation.
What would surprise readers in your book?
What would surprise them is that there are some positive aspects of this polarization. Most of the comments you get about polarization from political pundits and journalists tend to be negative, looking at it as a threat to democracy, as an impediment to effective policymaking. I argue that that's not necessarily the case, and that there are some real benefits to polarization. It certainly has not depressed interest or participation at all, just the opposite. There's something to be said for having relatively clear choices and holding political leaders accountable for their performance, and this definitely makes that more feasible.