The Monkey Cage, an excellent blog that features writing by political scientists and which has gravitated to the Washington Post website, has been running a series of short pieces on the theme of polarization. Yesterday’s installment by Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, bears the intriguing headline:
Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse.
Fiorina goes over aspects of the comparison between the U.S. system, with its many veto points and high tolerance for divided government, and some of the parliamentary systems, which are fundamentally designed to put one party, or a coalition representing a majority in charge of the government and allow it to implement its policies until it loses an election.
In the American context, Fiorina argues, we have a left (embodied in the Democratic Party) a right (Republican) and a center, where swing voters can determine the outcome of elections. When centerish voters support the Democrats, it doesn’t necessarily mean they really want the lefty policies that the Democrats are offering, only that they prefer it to the righty policies that the Republicans are offering. (And vice versa.) What they really want is something in the middle. In his words:
“Roughly speaking, Democrats build their electoral coalition from the left, and Republicans from the right, but given the generally centrist distribution of public opinion, each must capture enough of the center to win. Once in office, if the party governs as its base demands, marginal members of the electoral majority defect. The result of this party overreach is the 2006 Republican ‘thumpin’ ‘ and the 2010 Democratic ‘shellacking.'”
I guess the key phrase, for understanding Fiorina’s argument, is “the party governs as its base demands.” I’m not sure I agree that that’s always what happens, but I see his point. When the Republicans get too much control, their policies are so far right that a majority, formed of the left and center, doesn’t like the result. When the Dems control, same deal with the center and the right. He concludes:
“By no means am I happy with the status quo. This country faces serious problems. How long before the political system seriously addresses the problems of pensions and health care, immigration, an increasingly inefficient tax system and a variety of other problems? But failing to deal with them may be no worse than attempting to deal with them in ways that do not have anything approaching majority support in the electorate. However unsatisfying the present state of affairs, voters may prefer muddling along to ping-ponging between two minorities that attempt to govern entirely by their own lights.”