Visiting scholar: Political polarization not all bad

Alan Abramowitz, a nationally known scholar of American elections and author of the new book “The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy,” argues that a recent surge in polarization in U.S. politics may not be as bad as some might believe.

Alan Abramowitz

Alan Abramowitz

In fact, Abramowitz, speaking during a Visiting Scholar Program lecture Monday, April 12, at Western Carolina University, contends that polarization – the deep ideological divide that exists between Democrats and Republicans – actually has some benefits for the political process.

A political scientist at Emory University, Abramowitz showed data to illustrate a dramatic decline in the number of moderates in the U.S. Senate from the 1960s, when broad-based bipartisan support enabled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to today, when not a single Republican voted for the recent health care reform package. “Today, when you try to reach across the aisle, you have to reach so far that it’s just about impossible,” he said.

Abramowitz said he believes that increased polarization among political leaders reflects an increased polarization among the general public, which is attributable to changes in the modern political environment. Those changes include clearer ideological cues from politicians and a media environment in which cable news, the Internet and talk radio have all added to the frequency and intensity of political rhetoric, he said.

Among the consequences of this rising polarization, Abramowitz argues, is increased party loyalty and decreased ticket-splitting in elections; less competitive elections at the state and local level; fewer battleground states because more states are becoming more firmly Republican or Democrat; and campaigns that focus more on mobilizing the party faithful than on seeking swing votes.

Despite those factors, Abramowitz believes that increasing polarization has its benefits. They include: The choices in modern elections are clearer; gone are the days when you couldn’t tell the Republican from the Democrat. There is a higher level of engagement among the public in the political process. Stronger, more cohesive parties are more capable of carrying out their campaign promises. And, it is easier for the electorate to hold office-holders accountable when they do not live up to their commitments, he said.

Finally, to those who criticize contemporary politicians for the higher levels of polarization, Abramowitz quoted the words of the great comic strip sage Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In other words, politicians are more polarized today because the people have become polarized, he said.

The program was sponsored by WCU’s department of political science and public affairs.