Stanford professor debunks political polarization

The notions of a politically discordant and ideologically polarized American public that dominate American news media outlets are flawed and unfounded, a visiting political science professor said Thursday in a Tempe campus lecture.

Morris Fiorina, a Stanford professor who spoke to about 50 people on the Tempe campus, said while polarization among politicians and between party leaders has grown in the past 50 years, statistics show that 50 percent of Americans are politically moderate on most issues.

“Normal people are moderate, ambivalent and pragmatic when it comes to politics,” said Fiorina, author of “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” and “Divided Government.”

“Also, in general, normal people are less interested and less informed in politics than we are led to believe.”

The Democratic Party has shifted its ideas further left, while the Republican Party has shifted its ideas further to the right, and the result is that there is no longer a middle, Fiorina said. These shifts have only been in the upper ranks of each party, however, and don’t reflect the stance of the American electorate.
Patrick Kenney, a political science professor at ASU, said Fiorina is one of the leading voices in the field and his ideas are well accepted.

“The moderation of the electorate and the polarization of the ruling class is something that we have been studying for years,” said Kenney, who considers Fiorina his mentor.

As the division between the parties grows, so does the inability of elected representatives to effectively speak on behalf of their constituents, said Fiorina, who pointed out that this will also negatively affect the level of political interest among Americans.

“Incivility breeds cynicism,” he said, and introduced statistics that demonstrated when politicians raise their voices and bombard one another with personal attacks, Americans almost always lose trust in the politicians and become uninterested.

He went on to debunk the widespread belief that an increase in political interest among Americans accompanied the 2008 presidential election. Poll results showed a decrease from the 2004 election in the number of Americans who considered themselves very much interested in the election, he said.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who attended a political meeting, worked for a campaign or contributed money to a campaign remained almost unchanged during the 2008 election, Fiorina said.

“There is just very little reliable evidence to show that the public was more engaged in 2008 than in previous elections,” he said.

Political science junior Geoffrey Vetter has studied Fiorina’s ideas in Kenney’s “Voters in America” class and said he was excited to sit in on the lecture.

“It’s important to educate the average person who thinks that there is this huge polarization within the populous,” he said. “Enlightening them to the fact that there really isn’t a large gap may help alleviate some of the political tension that currently exists.”

Reach the reporter at npmendo@asu.edu