"You have two parties in a heterogeneous country where people have all kinds of views," says Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "It's simply not enough to represent diversity in this country."
In his latest book, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate, Fiorina argues that Americans actually agree with each other on fundamental issues such as immigration, marriage equality, and pot legalization. The polarization we hear about is mostly restricted to political activists and media elites who mistake their own extreme views for those of the common people.
"Everybody worries about the average American being ensconced in a filter bubble," says Fiorina. "Most of the research suggests it's the elites who are in these filter bubbles…and have this biased view of the world."
Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Fiorina to discuss ideological bubbles, why President Donald Trump is a fracture in the two-system, and whether more Americans are becoming true independents (short answer: yes).
Edited by Alexis Garcia. Cameras by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, and Zach Weissmueller.
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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: Let's start with the title of your book, Unstable Majorities. You note early on that the four consecutive elections between 2004 and 2010, produced four different patterns of political control of the federal government. So the White House, Congress, and the Senate all flip around in different ways. Since 2000, we've had two people who lost the popular vote but won the presidency. These are extremely atypical events. What's going on here?
Morris Fiorina: Well I think it's very interesting. We're in a historically unusual time. Generally speaking, there is a majority party in the United States. There is no majority party today. In every election each of our three national offices, the presidency, the House, and the Senate are basically up for grabs. It's only eight years ago that the Democrats had the House of Representatives, the Senate is always on knife edge and as you point out, we've had two very close presidential elections where the popular vote winner lost.
Gillespie: And you talk about how even in 2004, which it's funny while I was reading the book, I was like, Bush won that easily, but actually it was pretty close.
Gillespie: And 2008, was not exactly a blowout either.
Fiorina: Correct. Even though the party won everything, it didn't win everything by a lot. There has not been a presidential landslide in quite a long time. Whereas when you think back there the previous generation we saw Eisenhower in '56, Lyndon Johnson in '64, Nixon in '72, Reagan in 1984. We haven't seen anything like that in a long time.
Gillespie: Yeah, and for a long time there was…I mean Bill Clinton in '92, won with 43 percent of the vote—
Fiorina: 43 percent.
Gillespie: —which is extremely low.
Gillespie: So why is this happening?
Fiorina: Though our parties have traditionally been catch-all parties, in majoritarian systems like ours you typically have a two-party system where both parties are broad-based. We don't have that anymore. We have two parties now that look like the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Europe at the late 20th century, when they're very, very dominant. And you have two parties in a big heterogeneous country where people have all kinds of points of views that don't necessarily hang together and it's simply not enough to represent the diversity of this country.
Gillespie: So two parties is not enough to represent 330 million people.
Fiorina: Exactly, and the point is because they're so homogeneous, when one party wins it attempts to impose an agenda on their country, which is often not the same issues that the country thinks are the most important issues facing the country. It also more extreme positions on issues that it does take positions on.
Gillespie: But in order to win the parties have to appeal to centrist or independents. You note that it's about 40 percent of the country identify as independents, so in an election season, at least at the presidential level, typically a Democrat or a Republican will kind of move to the center to win but then once they're in power they go to the edges.
Fiorina: Yeah, it's getting harder and harder in today's wired world for a party to move to the center because they have you on film and on the air at everything. But I think it's fair to say we have, if you take turnout into account, we now have a one-third, one-third, one-third party system—that the Democrats have a third, Republicans have a third, and a third are in the middle. So you win the election by capturing the lion's share in the middle but then if you impose an agenda that's your base's agenda, a lot of the people in the middle say, I didn't really vote for that and they abandon you in the next election.
Gillespie: I co-authored a book a couple years ago called, The Declaration of Independents, where my colleague and I, Matt Welch, made the bold argument that independents mattered the most. One of the common criticisms that we met was that there really are no true independents and people are just kind of bullshitting when they say "I'm not a Republican" or "I'm not a Democrat" to pollsters. Are there true independents and how do we know they're out there?
Fiorina: Yeah, there definitely are. I mean it's clear that some are closet partisans, there have always been some people who just like to say, "I'm an independent." But this idea that all independents are closet partisans or even the lion's share, that's been greatly exaggerated. If you look at how independents vote, they vary more across time. For example, they switch their votes whenever a third party candidate appears, independents, even independent leaders are much more likely to go for the third party. The true proportion of true independents I think is unknown, but it is enough that it determines the elections out there.
Gillespie: Yeah, because if you're talking about 46 percent versus 48 percent winning the presidency, that means three percent of the vote is gonna make or break somebody.
Gillespie: And how does that play out in— One of the most interesting things, and we'll talk more about the 2016 election in a minute, but so many counties had seemed or districts that voted for Obama twice, then voted for Donald Trump, is that a sign of independents or is that a sign of kind of cloudy thinking on the part of the elector?
Fiorina: Well I think first of all, we'd have to look and see just how big the changes in the counties were. Maybe if they went from 51 to 49, it doesn't represent a huge change, that is one of the things that happened in the popular vote. But I think it reflects the instability that in contrast to a lot of commentators who say, Americans are locked in these two camps. No, I don't think it does. The same kinds of people who voted for Obama in 2012, come back and say, "I want to vote for Trump this time." Those are people who are not really moored to either of the two parties.
Gillespie: Part of what I've found fascinating about Unstable Majorities is your kind of understated venom towards most political activists and especially political journalists, such as myself, for not knowing what the hell we're talking about. In 2004, this happened and again in 2006, where you saw first Republicans, when Bush won reelection and did OK and the Republicans said OK but you saw people talking about locking in the permanent Republican majority a couple years later when that all ended. Suddenly people were talking about, oh well, it's gonna be the Democrats for the rest of our lifetime.
Why are— I guess I know why party activists, that's kind of wish fulfillment or projection so when they win any election they say, "We're gonna win them all." Why are journalists and even a lot of political scientists so short-sighted in the ways in which this stuff flips and flops and back and forth?
Fiorina: Well in defense of my political science colleagues, I don't think that many of us actually said, these are landslide or shattering realigning elections. I think journalists that, say, talk too often to the activists, they talk to the people who won and there's a kind of triumphalism on the part of either of the winning parties, which then filters through the journalist.
Let me just say something about filter bubbles by the way, that this is a big thing in the news that everybody worries about, the average American being in this constant filter bubble. Well in fact, the average American doesn't follow news very much at all, that most the research suggests that it's the elites who are in these filter bubbles. It's the elites who only talk to each other and who have this simply biased—
Gillespie: Totally ignorant or delusional view.
Fiorina: —view of the world. For example, I'll give a talk and I'll put some data up and say, here's the percentage of Republicans who believe in abortion or who believe in gun control and I'll get emails back saying, "I don't believe your data, I don't know any Republicans who believe that." Those are the people in the filter bubble, they don't talk to anybody.
Gillespie: You have some incredible stats and one of them had said in terms of die-hard Democrats, they think 44 percent of Republicans make over $250,000 dollars a year, which is hilarious. And this might even be better, Republicans think 38 percent of Democrats are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans.
Fiorina: Right, yes.
Gillespie: Why is that happening now, as opposed to… It seems so out of touch. What is fueling that kind of completely ridiculous view of the other side?
Fiorina: I think, first of all I should just say, those statistics were produced by some of our graduate students who have access to a polling firm here and were mindboggling when we saw those figures. I don't think we can say for sure, but a lot of it surely has got to be TV. That TV and the internet everybody else… The media in general practice what's called "exemplification," they say, we wanna have a Democrat and then they start the 'What's a Democrat?" Well, it's a protestor, it's a minority, they're the people down here at town and country who protest the 65-year-olds with the long gray ponytails. And then, you want a Republican, OK you wanna be somebody suit and tie, you wanna be maybe an Evangelical or something.
Socially, we're much more segregated than we used to be when I was growing up, though we do live in more homogeneous neighborhoods, etc., although again, that's exaggerated. But I think people, they simply don't get out and know the other side. And so you get this picture from the media, and the picture is simply not very accurate, it's exaggerated.
Gillespie: It's not just from the media though, and I'm thinking about recent books like Our Kids by Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist, and the Charles Murray book Coming Apart. And these are two guys who disagree with each other although they come to common kind of analyses of what's wrong with America and one is that everybody is living in a bubble. How do you know then that like regular Americans are not in an ideological bubble, the way the elites are saying they are?
Fiorina: Well, this is personal that I come from, as we were talking, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Trump country. And I think my county voted something like 96… My county's 96 percent white, they voted more than two-thirds for Trump. And I go back and I talk to relatives and cousins and so forth and they aren't the kind of stereotypes you would see about what those kind of people would look like that you see in the media. And so part of it's just personal, that there aren't many people in either academia or certainly the people who appear on CNN who sort of actually have any experience talking to America in the flyover country.
Gillespie: What are the areas where there are large majorities, where people on culture war issues, where Americans actually agree but then the way that it gets filtered through the political process, people are like, now this is absolutely we're at the barricades.
Fiorina: Sure, the social issues are the best example that most Americans can take [Roe v. Wade] as it is out there and say "I can live with that." That they don't want to outlaw abortion, they're a little uncomfortable with some of the third, well more than a little uncomfortable with third trimester stuff, but basically they can say, "We can live within this middle ground." Same thing with gay rights. On the one hand they don't wanna see a baker forced to bake a cake for a wedding, on the other hand they wanna see gays have equal rights. So they basically can sort of be in a comfortable middle ground. Big majorities… Guns are another thing. Most Americans can, even NRA members can sort of support what are called "common sense" gun control. But in each case we have activists groups in each party's base, the pro-choice/pro-life, pro-gun/anti-gun, pro-gay rights/anti-gay rights, which spouts much more extreme positions than populations as a whole.
Gillespie: It's always interesting with abortion because if you go back to the early '70s, it wasn't clear the party split on that but I don't think there are any Republicans in Washington who are pro-choice, nor are there any Democrats who are pro-life, or maybe one or two. How did that become acceptable? So the parties have sorted and you have these incredible charts where it shows that compared to 50 or 60 years ago, there's no variety in the parties. The Republican Party is a conservative party, the Democratic Party is a liberal party. Why did they sort that way? What changed that we wouldn't have catch-all parties?
Fiorina: That's a great question, and we don't have a good answer. I tried to address that in my middle book Disconnect, I published in 2011, I think. And in some cases you can point out demographic changes really explain it. For example, if you have great internal migration of African Americans from the South to the North, that pushes the northern Democrats in a more liberal direction on social welfare and civil rights. That in turn alienates more of the South and the Republicans sort of look at that and see an opportunity. You can tell a demographic story in something like that.
But on the other hand, if you were trying to guess, before abortion is on the agenda, OK, abortions gonna be a big item, which party's gonna be pro-life? Most people would say the Democrats, they're the Catholic party, they're the evangelical Baptist party, and yet it doesn't work out that way. And by the same token, environmentalism, the Republicans have a long tradition of being the conservation party with Teddy Roosevelt, things like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club are Republican sort of upper-middle-class Republican organizations. Why did they sort out the other way? And the Democrats being more blue-collar workers whose industries pollute. So I think we really don't have a good handle on how… It has to do with the activist groups, the social groups,but I don't think we have a good handle at all on just how the sorting occurred.
Gillespie: And then the large point is that once the parties have sorted, there's really no way… I mean if you wanna vote, if you wanna be a voting citizen, you really don't have somebody who is… And if you're a normal American, which means you're somewhere in that middle, you don't really have a party that represents you.
Fiorina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, there's a good short in the book on that.
Gillespie: So why do people pick… But people then end up mostly voting… In the presidential election what was it, maybe 3 or 4 percent didn't vote for either Republican or Democrat. How do we choose to say, I'm a Republican or I'm a Democrat?
Fiorina: There's a long political science literature on this, both in Europe and here that the wasted vote thesis that you know there's really only two choices, and so you don't want to throw your vote away. And that's why the proportion voting who say they're gonna vote for a third party always diminishes as you get near the end. It's a funny situation where you've got to vote for a party that's wrong for you on one or more issues. I always say, we live in an area here where thousands, tens of thousands of young professionals who are struggling to get by and continually vote for people who are gonna raise their taxes because the alternative is to vote for a party that says we're gonna bash gays, restrict abortions, and log the Redwoods. And so in that situation they're gonna vote for a party that really doesn't represent their economic interests.
Gillespie: There is that idea that demography is destiny in politics and that younger Americans, Millennials or if you want to say people under 40 or whatever, are obviously gonna vote Democratic from here to eternity because of gay rights, because of immigration, because of drug legalization, things like that. Is there a reason to believe, and certainly at least going back to certainly to Obama, I mean the Democrats have totally cleaned the clock of the Republicans when it comes to younger voters, are the Republicans just out of touch with young people and will never win them back? Or what happens with it?
Fiorina: Yes, they're out of touch with young people. As far as never winning them back, never say never.
Fiorina: That in politics, was it Harold Macmillan who said, "A week in politics is an eternity," and at one point you've said, well Catholics gonna vote Democratic forever and then this Catholic social position changed, they started voting Republican much more and more. I think the same thing is true of all the demographic things at some point. I've often said, parties can be stupid but they don't stay stupid forever and at some point there'll be new leadership, cadres coming up with the Republican party who will say we gotta take stock of what this country looks like now. It doesn't look like,it looked like in the late '70s or '80s when all the social issues and the social groups…
Gillespie: And those are when the current identities of the Democratic and Republican parties were founded, and those coalitions don't really exist anymore.
Fiorina: That's right.
Gillespie: And so we're left with this hangover of these husks of old coalitions that don't really speak to anything here.
Fiorina: That's right and it's truly interestingly around the world. Some other countries are ahead of us for example, the whole basically French party system just collapsed. The Social Democrats disappeared…
Gillespie: And a dog without a real party became president.
Fiorina: And see the problem in the United States is we don't have… Our institutions keep a Macron from riding to the rescue like what happened in France. But this is happening around the world, that these calcified old party systems that just don't fit today's issues and today's concerns are coming apart.
Gillespie: What can we learn from previous periods? In the book you talk about the period of no decision in the late 19th century where party control went back and forth and back and forth. One time a Democrat would win the Presidency, a Republican Congress vice versa. What ended that to lock in Republican dominance and then Democratic dominance et cetera, for any period of time.
Fiorina: What ended it was 1896 when a Republican won everything and they governed in a way the population found acceptable and they kept on winning. They won for 14 consecutive years, and stayed the majority party until the Depression. At that point, the Democrats came in and governed in a way the population found acceptable. What we're seeing today is nobody governs in a way that for two years the population finds acceptable, and they'll whack you in the next election.
Gillespie: That's on the table for later this year in the midterm elections.
Gillespie: So the parties have sorted and then at one point you talk about Donald Trump may be a de-sorter. What does that mean and is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Fiorina: Well, I think it's a good thing. Anything that fractures the current party system is a good thing, and I've been saying this and hoping for it for more than a decade but it just hasn't happened. But you remember when Donald Trump comes in and starts emphasizing issues like being anti-trade etc, or if different foreign policy, more 'America first' foreign policy, he's attacked by the conservative leaders who say he's not a true conservative. That is how they define the Republican Party as being this party of true conservatives and I think what they found out, to much of their dismay in many cases, was that a whole lot of Republican voters are not true conservatives. That they are not sorted in the same way that the elites are. And so they found his trade policies acceptable in some cases. They found his more isolationist foreign policies acceptable. And I think the same thing is true in the Democratic Party but you need to sort of have a candidate who sort of is off the main diagonals of the party to show that.
Gillespie: So if Trump is like that with the Republican Party and I can see your point, and he's moderated to a certain degree, he's moderated his stance on immigration and what not, he seems a little less… He's no longer talking about kicking out 11 million people and all of that kind of stuff, although he hasn't walked it all back. On the Democratic side, the insurgent candidate who really gave Hillary Clinton fits was Bernie Sanders, who seemed to be an exaggerated form of what Sean Hannity thinks all Democrats are. Is there somebody who would be a de-sorter for the Democrats that's on the horizon?
Fiorina: I guess off the top of my head I don't see it but on the other hand, if you'd asked me six months before Trump entered the race, is there a Republican, I couldn't have picked one out either.
Gillespie: So maybe it'll be Oprah or something?
Fiorina: Maybe there could be someone who just comes in and sort of takes a different position on some of the identity issues, the social issues and finds there's a real path there, or lane so to speak there.
Gillespie: After the election in 2016, and you have a good deal of fun with this but many observers, mostly journalists, were saying things like, 'American democracy is doomed, Trump's election was an American tragedy, will we be able to stop the obvious rise of fascism.' Why are those sentiments so ridiculous?
Fiorina: OK. Well the first thing was, they overlooked the fact that according to all the poll data we have, Americans thought they had a historically bad choice. People don't realize how poorly Hillary Clinton was regarded by a large part of the American electorate. The Gallup figures and others showed that Trump was the worst candidate, worst-regarded candidate in modern history, Hillary was two. That Trump had the…
Gillespie: And they were the only two in one chart that you have who had disapproval ratings above 50 percent.
Fiorina: They both set records, that Trump completely obliterated…
Gillespie: So this is like that season when Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs but Mark McGwire hit like 72. This was just like a legendary…
Fiorina: A record-setting season.
Gillespie: And they were probably both… Now that I think about it, Hillary and Trump are both probably using steroids as well.
Fiorina: (laughs) Could be.
And people knew what they were getting in Trump. If you look at the poll data again, they didn't think Trump was qualified, they didn't think Trump had the right temperament, but they voted for him anyway in many cases.
Gillespie: In one part of the book you talk about when there are these moments of instability, it often comes with there are larger factors going on, things like globalization, or transformation of the economy. How is that playing out here and what are those main factors that would give Americans, who were generally I mean we might not be that smart but we're not that stupid either, what are those large events that are giving rise to saying, OK, we'll take a chance on Trump?
Fiorina: I mentioned these in conjunction with the parallels of the late 19th century. When you have large-scale economic and social changes going on, and then it was the Industrial Revolution, today it's this transition to a communications or an informational economy. Then it was population movements from the farms to the cities. In recent years it's been the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt, both are years of mass immigration, more globalization, it's an ongoing process but it surges at various times. And when you have these kind of changes going on, they create dislocations. There are new winners. There are new losers. They strain the old coalitions. Previous allies are now in tension with each other. They create opportunities for new politicians and basically it just creates uncertainty, political uncertainty.
Gillespie: Libertarians, Reason is a libertarian organization, libertarians are sometimes described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which also seems to be kind of the way that you and Gallup every survey kind of shows that most people are somewhat moderate, some are centrist and I realize describing libertarians as centrists might set some people's hair on fire. But we want people to live the way they want and we want a government that is vaguely competent but is not doing everything. Is a libertarian sensibility something that describes this centrists American voter, this model American voter? Or what is a term that would do that more fully?
Fiorina: Some of them. In contrast to political elites, which basically they err on a left/right scale, most public opinion analyses find two dimensions. They find this economic and this social dimension. And there are the liberals on both and conservatives on both who are happy with two parties. And then there are two off diagonal groups. The one is libertarians, soft libertarianism that favors sort of economic prudence and minimal government but social liberalism. The other is what they call populists, who are sort of the opposite. They favor the social welfare programs, the safety net and also more conservative on the social issues. So they're in a sense two unaffiliated group, well they're affiliated but loosely, with the two parties.
Gillespie: And I guess at this moment though, either of those groups can really play a big role in elections and it's clear that populists, they won the day in this most recent election.
Fiorina: That's right. But a lot depends on the candidates. It happened that there was a vehicle, Trump, for the populists' movement to come, impulse, we'll call it that. I've always wondered, what if Bill Weld had been the top of the Liberation ticket. I mean I was in Massachusetts when Weld was governor and I have great admiration for him. And so had Weld been on the debate, for example, had Weld been the nominee, you might have seen the expression of the Libertarian impulse coming out simply because otherwise there was nowhere for that to go.
Gillespie: And I guess Weld also, he represents a type of Republican who no longer exists. That Northeastern Republican who would be called a moderate maybe, a country club Republican but that person doesn't exist anymore, that social type.
How much of what's going on in American politics is reflective of global trends because we hear a lot and you write about this in the book, you know that populism is on the march in England and in Europe and the lights are always going out in Europe in this case. Should we be worried, or maybe that's the wrong term. Is European populism and American populism, are they linked or are they independent phenomenon?
Fiorina: They're linked through the common cause, which is the underlying social and economic changes buffeting the societies. I was at a conference in Rome a couple months ago, where scholars from all over Europe there and the commonalities were clear that all over Europe, masses are concerned about immigration and the European elites have tried to keep the lid on this in the same way our elites tried to keep the lid on civil rights for a long time and it's bursting out now because non traditional parties are taking up the mantle of those.
Gillespie: What about the social welfare state? Obviously, Europe has a more robust kind of safety net or social security programs than we do. Are we at the end of the Age of Bismarck, of the idea of a social welfare state that is funded by having lots of younger people who are funneling, relatively a lot of people funneling money to relatively few people and obviously demographically now every country the industrialized world, especially Japan but also in Europe and in North America? We just can't support this and on some level people understand that Social Security is already running an annual deficit, that Medicare is running out of money, etc. And is the anxiety about that coming up either in the form of being anti-immigrant because they're seen as takers as opposed to people supporting the system or we just realize that whatever we're doing here, it's effectively over, it's just a question of when the clock stops?
Fiorina: Well I don't know, which of the two to choose but I can certainly tell you from talking to these other scholars that part of the… You have welfare states that are under pressure just from budgetary reasons, just the age of austerity but clearly a lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment reflects that immigrants are additionally straining the social welfare system. Partially if Muslim women don't work for example, that's a source of resentment in some countries. So that ties into what… These things are all tied together and how it's gonna end up, I'm just not gonna speculate.
Gillespie: In American politics, does foreign policy ever really matter that much?
Fiorina: If there is a shooting war, if people are dying and increasingly if we're acting as advisors and only a few people from flyover country are dying, then it doesn't make it to the national media. But if we're into a serious war—Vietnam for example, in '68, the economy's booming, we're producing war materials. I was working in the steel mills in those days. We were working seven days a week and getting overtime but still Humphrey lost the election, Wallace made hay and a lot of it was just because there was a war, lots of young men from those kinds of areas were dying.
Gillespie: What about terrorism? I realize now I'm throwing a lot of kind of spitballs here but is the age of terrorism… Obviously it exists, we still talk about it a lot but the 9/11 effect, is that fading? Because that was certainly was one of the ways that George Bush won reelection in 2004, but now we're 12, 13 years after that. Is terrorism no longer or that kind of national security question, as relevant as it once was?
Fiorina: I think not but there's set of issues like school shootings, terrorist attacks that have this effect that when it happens there's an immediate surge and then a quick decay. It's amazing what a society can become accustomed to in regard to sort of normal, the occasional shooting, the occasional terrorist attack. But who's to say what would happen with another gigantic attack where 3,000 people died, that might take a while to deteriorate.
Gillespie: A final question, we're seven months out from 2018 the midterms, what is your best guess… we're in an era of unstable majorities right now, the Republicans own the White House, and both houses of Congress, what's gonna happen in November?
Fiorina: Just on the basis, without looking at any data, right after the election I would have said the Democrats' chances of taking over the House are good because they only need 24 seats and in recent memory, midterm elections that well within the realm of possibility. The Senate's a much steeper climb of course, 'cause you're defending so many seats and so many seats are in Trump country. And I still think that's a pretty reasonable prediction, that the Democrats have a good chance in the House, not nearly as good in the Senate but a whole lot depends on things in the meantime, if there are terrorist attacks for example, and the economy. It's interesting that typically the things that determine the midterm losses are the President's performance and economy, which usually run together. The President is regarded highly or not because of the economy. That's an interesting situation where Trump's numbers are pretty bad but the economy is just perking along.
Fiorina: And so from a political science standpoint, this is a chance to sort of separate these two factors which is sort of nice.
Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. We've been talking with Morris P. Fiorina of Stanford and the Hoover Institutions, most recent book is Unstable Majorities. Morris, thanks so much for talking.
Fiorina: You're very welcome.
Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.