The Politics of Polarization

As the son of an engineer, I have always been fascinated with the mathematical side of politics. Numbers don’t lie, and a new report just issued by the think tank ThirdWay provides some interesting statistical analysis of the electorate as well as some important suggestions about the future of the Democratic Party.

The report is entitled “The Politics of Polarization” and was prepared by William Galston of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and Elaine Kamarck of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

First and foremost to understanding the current political environment is a review of voters’ self-identification by political philosophy: “In 2004, the electorate was 21 percent liberal, 34 percent conservative and 45 percent moderate,” according to the report. “This is practically a carbon copy of the average of the past thirty year – 20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative and 47 percent moderate – with remarkably little variation from election to election.”

In other words, for every two liberals, there are three conservatives with almost half of the electorate being in the moderate middle.

If the numbers have remained stationary for the past 30 years, why have Republicans won more elections than Democrats? According to the authors, one of the main reasons is polarization. Democrats used to get the votes of a significant number of conservatives (30 percent in the 1976 presidential election).

Today, the electorate is much more polarized with liberals voting Democratic and conservatives voting Republican. Since there are more self-described conservatives than liberals, this means that for a Democrat to win, he or she must win a larger share of the moderate vote (in excess of 60 percent according to the authors) than in the past.

Therein lies the rub. In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency with only 51 percent of the moderate vote; in 2004, John Kerry won 54 percent of the moderate vote and still lost the presidency by 3.5 points.

The authors also trace another alarming trend for Democrats -- a significant decline in support among married women. Republican support among married women went from 40 percent in 1992 to 55 percent in 2004. The authors note that concern about moral values was the most important issue for married women, topping even a concern about protection from terrorism.

So how do Democrats do better with political moderates and married women? The authors make a number of interesting recommendations.

First, “The Democratic Party must be able to articulate a coherent foreign policy that is based on a belief in American’s role in the world…Democrats must emphasize the importance of the American military as a potential force for good in the world.”

Specifically, they recommend that “Democrats must seize the opportunity to offer compelling alternatives to current Republican policies concerning homeland defense and the ultimate nightmare of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.”

On the social issues, the authors recommend that Democrats “show tolerance and common sense on hot-button social issues."

Specifically, they suggest that Democrats “could continue to support the core of Roe v. Wade while dropping their intransigence on questions such as parental notification and partial birth abortion. They could oppose court-imposed gay marriage while favoring decent legal treatment for gay couples and insisting that this is a matter for the people of the several states -- not the U.S. Constitution or the judiciary -- to resolve.”

Third, they recommend that Democrats adopt a more free trade position (“an economic policy that embraces global competition”) while at the same time providing a social safety net for people who lose their jobs in the process. That, of course, is the single most controversial of their recommendations because it goes contrary to the position of organized labor, a key part of the Democratic base.

Finally, they make a very interesting recommendation about the personal quality of candidates, particularly candidates for president. The authors note that “recent Democratic candidates have failed to establish the bond of trust with the electorate that is so essential to modern elections. Specifically, they note that Democratic candidates need to demonstrate, “strength, certainty and conviction.”

The authors posit that the last three losing Democratic Presidential candidates (Dukakis, Gore and Kerry) tended to talk primarily to highly educated upscale professionals who make up a significant part of the liberal base of the Democratic Party, rather than to less well educated working class voters who are also necessary for victory.

“If Democratic candidates do not ‘speak American’ as a native language, average Americans will find it hard to believe that these candidates really understand or care about them.”

Galston and Kamarck may not have all the answers for the Democratic Party, but their report deserves serious discussion by both Democratic leaders and the rank and file.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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