There is a paradox at the center of contemporary American politics: Though the electorate is essentially moderate, our parties and elected officials are increasingly representative of political extremes. As a result, the era of elections as affirmation has ended. We are living in the era of elections as repudiation.
There is little doubt that the 2010 midterm elections are going to produce sweeping political change in Washington and in statehouses across the United States. Just two years ago, pundits, politicians and political analysts were proclaiming the GOP's epitaph and the Democrats' resurgence.
How times have changed. Predictions of a new Democratic majority in America now seem as quaint and outdated as the predictions of new Republican majority following the 1994 and 2002 midterms. Some commentators and even elected officials have suggested that the American electorate is simply too fickle, expects too much too soon — or, in the recent words of columnist Eugene Robinson, are simply "spoiled brats." They're all wrong.
The truth is, America is sailing through largely uncharted waters, down a river that has its source in the tumult and change of the 1960s. For either Democrats or Republicans to emerge as a new majority party in America, Americans would first need to gravitate to one of the parties, and in a permanent way. This is what happened in the 1890s, when a generation of Americans overwhelmingly endorsed the Republican Party, and the 1930s, when a new generation embraced the Democrats.
Since 1968, neither party has been able to claim the allegiance of a majority of Americans. In fact, party attachment has been on the decline, and the share of voters identifying as independent or only "weakly" attached to either party has increased sharply. According to data from the American National Election Study, in 1964, 52 percent of Americans identified as either "weak" or "strong" Democrats and 25 percent as "weak" or "strong" Republicans; 23 percent were independents. In 2008, it was 34 percent, 26 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
But as Americans have moved away from party, the parties have responded by becoming ever more partisan and polarized. Why? Since the 1960s, American politics has become far more competitive. Only seven states had divided government in 1954; in 2007, that number stood at 23 states. With few exceptions, either party has a fair shot at winning statewide elections in most states. Studies show that as a state becomes more competitive between Republicans and Democrats, the respective parties become ever more conservative and liberal as the competition forces parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice. Additionally, as competition increases, the parties come to rely more heavily not on the mean, median or moderate voter, but rather on the more committed, activist voter. This has the effect of pushing the parties ever further to the extremes.
Multiple studies have confirmed that Congress has become a polarized body devoid of a political center. Though some scholars have advanced the theory that this growing polarization among elected officials is reflective of a polarized public, there is in fact little evidence that the mass public has become polarized. Rather, the polarization has occurred among committed political activists and the interest groups they support — a relatively small share of the electorate.
A new study by Joseph Bafumi and Michael Herron (in the latest volume of the journal American Political Science Review) lends further credence to the argument that parties are polarized and the electorate is not. Messrs. Bafumi and Herron compared roll call votes of members of the 109th Congress (the last under Republican control) and the 110th Congress (the first under Democratic control post-2006 midterm), with voter responses drawn from a survey of more than 33,000 Americans. Through this process, the authors were able to plot the ideology of members of Congress as well as the median ideology of Democratic, Republican, and all voters in a state.
What they found is fascinating. In nearly every state studied, Democratic members of Congress were well to the left of the median voter and even to the left of the median Democratic voter. Likewise, Republican members were well to the right. Further, they determined that the median member of the 109th Congress was well to the right of the median American voter. This may help to explain the Republicans' loss of the House and the Senate in 2006. But the authors determined that the 2006 election did not bring a sense of balance to Congress; in fact, the median member of the newly elected Democratic Congress was well to the left of the median American voter. In short, the median voter had been "leapfrogged" in the 2006 election as Congress moved from one extreme to the other.