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Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees.

And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.

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Republican primary voters chose a presidential candidate who wants to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, thinks climate change is a hoax, and has called for the biggest tax cuts in modern history.

Democratic primary voters came very close to nominating a presidential candidate who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” wants to expand federal spending by $33 trillion, and proposed the biggest tax increases in modern history.

To a lot of political scientists, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders this year looks like powerful confirmation of “political polarization” — the idea that the American electorate is increasingly cleaving into a growing red camp and a growing blue camp.

Mo Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, sees it differently. He doesn’t deny that the two parties’ elected leaders in Congress have continued to drift further and further apart on the issues and in their ability to strike compromises.

But he doesn’t think the voters are to blame. Instead, Fiorina thinks that politics in Washington is broken by partisan warriors at the elite level alone — but that the voters themselves have been crying out for less ideological extremism. In this telling, it’s Washington elites who are getting more and more polarized, and the country is just being taken along for the ride.

To be frank: This idea seems tough to reconcile with the 2016 election. If the voters really aren’t polarized, why do they keep gravitating toward politicians further and further from the political center?

In an interview earlier this month, I asked Fiorina if this campaign had rattled his hopeful vision of American politics. The answer, he said, is that it hadn’t. In fact, he said it had only made him more optimistic.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Fiorina: This election proves voters aren’t hungering for partisan warriors

Trump Scott Olson / Getty

Jeff Stein

Can you lay out what you think is happening in American politics right now? Why shouldn’t we fear that the two increasingly divided parties are just going to be more at odds and less able to find compromise? Most of the political scientists I’ve talked to seem to think that’s where we’re going.

Mo Fiorina

We definitely have two very ideologically divided parties right now — more than we had for most of the 20th century. It's clear that political elites — candidates, activists, donors — are very divided. They are more at odds today than they’ve been since the ’60s.

My point is that this elite-level polarization hasn’t infected most of the American electorate. The country is not full of partisan warriors. Most people are a mix of conservative and liberal positions with some sympathy for both sides of political debates. Moreover, they aren’t that involved in politics. They're not going to move to Canada if their side loses, let alone want to kill people who disagree with them. What they mostly would like is for some party to come in and govern the country with some degree of success.

In one of my essays, I use an analogy. Let’s say you're talking about Catholics. We know that most of the Catholic bishops take a hard line on contraception and abortion. Could you safely infer that most Catholics agree with the bishops? From surveys, we know that a majority of Catholics disagree with the church's position on contraception and a substantial proportion disagrees on abortion. But they stay Catholic rather than convert to another religion.

The same is true in politics. If a voter consistently votes Democratic, it doesn't mean that she agrees with the party on every issue. It just means that she agrees with them more than with the Republicans.

What we're seeing, I think, are increasing indications that the voters really want someone outside the two-party system that exists today. I think we saw that in both parties this year, and I think that’s a hopeful sign given the stalemate that's characterized our politics for the past decade or so.

Jeff Stein

Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz has argued that this isn't just an elite phenomenon — that the voters themselves are becoming more and more divided between a growing blue camp in an endless war with a growing red camp. It’s a very dark vision, but I think, unfortunately, it feels right to a lot of people who are feeling very down about American politics right now.

Your counter-thesis — that the American public actually wants a less rancorous and less partisan and more pragmatic politics — is much more hopeful. But it doesn’t seem to match up with the hyperpartisanship we saw rewarded in the primaries. How does your optimism about the voters survive their decision to get behind Trump?

Mo Fiorina

Alan is right that there are two well-sorted ideological parties. But I disagree with him about how far down and how much the sorting goes in the general electorate; ordinary people don't like it.

The Democrats and Republicans have been fighting on a battlefield that has its origins in the 1960s. The party elites and activists have gotten more and more distant from where the voters themselves actually are. And it’s that divide that we saw exploited in the primaries.

My point has been that party elites keep trying to impose a structure on this heterogeneous electorate that doesn’t fit. And that if you could get candidates like Trump, Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Jim Webb to cut across that spectrum, you'd see different outcomes. Trump and Sanders’s campaigns gave us some good evidence of that.

The case for optimism here is that my sense is the system is blowing up. To people like me who went to graduate school in the 1960s, things have that same feel today. And I hope that out of the wreckage of these sclerotic ideological parties, a new generation of leaders will emerge who package issues and solutions in a way more appropriate to our times so we can move on.

Isn’t Trump proof of a polarized electorate?

polarization
A chart shows the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in Congress

Jeff Stein

I don’t know how you look at Trump and not see a polarized right-wing electorate nominating someone who takes positions far more to the right than anyone else in the primary. There's the Mexican wall, banning Muslim immigrants — all of that is pretty extreme. His allies talk about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as demons, in far more aggressive terms than a Mitt Romney or John McCain ever would have.

How do you not see that as a sign that a big chunk of Republican voters have gone completely off the rails in a rightward direction?

Mo Fiorina

The noteworthy thing about the Trump candidacy is its relatively non-ideological character — something that flummoxed conservative intellectuals like Bill Kristol and George Will.

Trump wasn't, and isn't, a "true conservative," and even a lot of Republican primary voters didn't seem to care. His is a relatively non-ideological candidacy. The data suggests that a lot of Trump's appeal is simply its establishment nature. Even if you disagree with Trump on some issues, he's got the right opponents — big government, big media, cultural elites. As the old saying goes, my enemy's enemy is my friend.

If you take Trump's name away and look at his economic policies, you don't see a litany of right-wing proposals. He doesn't want to slash the safety net. He makes the point that globalization and free trade make winners as well as losers, and many of the losers are people who would traditionally have been Democrats. It's when you add the Mexican wall, Muslim vetting, all of that — you add a cultural dimension which is associated with the xenophobic right — that's mostly where the charges of right-wing extremism come from.

But overall, Trump is not as ideological as many Republican leaders. If Ted Cruz had won the Republican nomination in a walk, I'd be more willing to conclude that the Republican electorate had "gone off the rails.”

Jeff Stein

I think the reason people will be skeptical of this is because the candidates who have been most able to capitalize by saying that they want to "move beyond the wreckage" are the ones who most look like ideologues.

Bernie Sanders may talk a lot in a way that makes him sound independent-minded, and that probably contributed to his support. But there’s no doubt he was also the most far left wing in the Democratic primary and the one least likely to be okay with a middle ground on basically all of the issues. And the same with Trump.

Mo Fiorina

But if you look at the positions of Sanders’s supporters, they really weren't that different from Clinton's. He wasn't especially attracting left-wing people. Like Trump, it was more anti-establishment, and Clinton embodies the Democratic establishment in addition to all her other negatives. That's what made Sanders so popular — not his far-left policies.

Jeff Stein

So how should we think about Trump?

Mo Fiorina

Trump seems more a populist than a conservative. And populism has always had this mix of left-wing and right-wing positions. Populists traditionally attack economic elites — bankers, moneylenders, the railroads, and other big corporations. They reflect the positions of those being hurt by social and economic transformations, in the 19th century as today.

It's something of a misnomer to call populism "far right." It’s the xenophobic and racist associations that often accompany it that call up right-wing extremism. The same is true in Europe incidentally. The National Front in France is supposedly far right because of its anti-immigrant appeal, but any reasonable person would characterize its economic platform as left-wing.

Jeff Stein

One of the statistics Vox’s Ezra Klein has cited about polarization has to do with marriage. In 1960, around 5 percent of people would mind if their kid married someone who belonged to the opposing political party. But in 2010, it’s now like half of Republicans don’t want their child marrying a Democrat, and vice versa.

How is that not a sign that the electorate itself is getting polarized?

Mo Fiorina

Here’s my interpretation: I think that’s absolutely logical based on the party sorting that has occurred in the past several decades. Look, in 1960, your Democratic daughter comes home and says, “I’m going to marry a Republican.” You’d think, “What kind of Republican? Is he a Barry Goldwater sagebrush Republican? A Midwestern country club Republican? A Northeastern Rockefeller Republican?”

Or in 1960, your Republican daughter comes home and says, “I’m going to marry a Democrat.” You'd think, “What kind of Democrat?” Is he a union guy? A Southern conservative? An intellectual from New York?”

No matter what you were, there were people in the other party who looked like you and had the same cultural values and believed more or less the same thing as you. Today when your Democratic daughter announces that she plans to marry a Republican, you think, "You're going to bring a global warming–denying homophobe into our family?” And if your Republican son announces that he's going to marry a Democrat, you think, "You want us to accept an America-hating atheist as our daughter-in-law?” These stereotypes exaggerate the reality, of course, but there is less overlap in the kinds of people who belong to the two parties today.

I want to be clear: I've always said that there has been sorting, although the extent as noted above has been exaggerated. Both parties are more homogeneous today than they were some decades ago. The narrative I don’t buy is that “polarization” has erased the political middle. When you line people up by the issues, most are a heterogeneous collection of pragmatists, centrists, conflicted, and, frankly, clueless in some cases — just not ideologues. Most have a mixture of beliefs that don’t align evenly with the hardcore partisan elites running the country.

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