How Elite Polarization has Transformed the Electorate

It is no secret that American politics have become more vitriolic. The parties in Congress have moved farther apart from each other ideologically. They have also become more unified internally. Party elites are increasingly ideologically polarized. This increase in polarization has been well documented. What is less clear is how these changes have affected average Americans? Have American voters become more divided in response to increasingly polarized elites? If so, how?

Michael Flynn and I attempt to answer these questions in our paper “From on High: The Effect of Elite Polarization on Mass Attitudes and Behaviors, 1972-2012”, which was published in the most recent issue of the British Journal of Political Science (ungated and completely free to download until Feb. 15th).

Our argument is that polarized parties send clear signals to voters. Therefore, voters should have an easier time determining how well a party’s position matches their own when polarization is high. At various points in American history Democrats and Republicans have spanned the ideological gamut from liberal to conservative, meaning there was a considerable amount of ideological overlap between the parties in Congress. In these cases it might be difficult for voters to determine which party best matches their own position (or perhaps overlook ideological mismatches since they are not as glaring). However, the current choices are starkly polarized. There is almost no ideological overlap. Ideologically extreme legislators have replaced more moderate members of Congress.

We assess how the parties’ changing positions affect voters’ attitudes and behaviors with an analysis of the American National Election Study data spanning 1972 and 2012. We constructed our analysis by first measuring voters’ policy orientations on economic and social issues and then assessing how voters’ policy orientations shape both their political attitudes and voting behaviors.

Our core finding is that Americans’ policy orientations have become increasingly strong predictors of attitudes and behaviors over time. Individuals with conservative orientations on economic and social issues have become more and more likely to identify as a Republican, vote for Republican presidential candidates, label themselves as a conservative, and express negative opinions of the Democratic Party. The opposite is true for those with liberal orientations. The key takeaway here is that voters are now more likely to identify with and vote for the party that best matches their policy orientations. It is highly likely that this trend has continued post 2012, when our analysis ended, as the parties have continued to polarize even further during the bitterly contested 2016 election and its aftermath.

What is also interesting is the increasing importance of social issues. During the 1970s (when or analysis begins), voters’ social orientations did not exert a statistically significant effect on their presidential vote or their partisanship. This began to change during the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan began to help bring evangelical Christians into the Republican coalition. Voters’ social orientations have only become more and more important since then as ‘god, guns, and gays’ have been pushed to the political forefront (not to mention the ever pressing issue of who can pee in what bathroom).

Overall, our findings demonstrate that the electorate does respond to what the elites are doing. Voters have noticed that the elites have become more polarized and changed their own attitudes and behaviors in substantively important ways in response.

About Joshua Zingher

Josh Zingher is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections, and representation.

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