Free Minds & Free Markets

Surprise: Voters Aren't More Polarized than Ever, Only Pols and Media Are

Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina says it's media and political elites who live in ideological bubbles, not regular Americans.

"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.

Fiorina: Yes.

Gillespie: And 2008, was not exactly a blowout either.

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    I mean... duh.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||


  • Citizen X - #6||

    Fuh real.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    38% of Democrats are not lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Everyone knows it's more like 84%.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    84% who are open. 16% who are too terrified by the violent Republicans to come out.

  • Fancylad||

    too terrified by the violent Republicans to come out.
    Like James Hodgkinson, right? Oh wait...

  • Mickey Rat||

    All the examples given of what the people supposedly agree on are social issues libertarians favor, conveniently. Though, I doubt that their support for those things is out of a respect for liberty over virtue signalling, and will express themselves in anti-liberty fashions.

    Are there any issues that the public agrees on that libertarians do not like? How do you deal with that?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Are there any issues that the public agrees on that libertarians do not like?

    Most of them?

  • ||

    Immigration quotas. Protectionist trade policy. Zoning. Illegal drug laws. Legal drug regulation. Licensing.

    Yeah, most of them.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    I'm glad I'm not a regular American.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If you want to take Phil Leotardo's word for it.

  • MarkLastname||

    Well, he did do 20 fuckin years.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Fiorina argues that Americans actually agree with each other on fundamental issues such as immigration .....

    I wish I could believe that, but I'm skeptical. It would be great if 100% of voters supported open borders like 100% of Reason writers do. But how do you reconcile that with an anti-immigrant white nationalist like Drumpf getting tens of millions of people to vote for him — against Hillary Clinton no less, the most qualified candidate in history?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It really just defies any logic or Reason (drink)

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Indeed. We open borders advocates know we're on the right side of history, but that doesn't mean we should fool ourselves about how much work remains to be done. Russian hacking and the Comey letter pushed Drumpf across the finish line, but even without those factors there would still have been 55 - 60 million voters supporting the white nationalist candidate. Hardly what we'd expect in a country in which "Americans actually agree with each other on fundamental issues such as immigration."

  • ||

    Name one Democrat who believes in open borders.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    "Russian hacking and the Comey letter pushed Drumpf across the finish line" Yes. And Johnson/Weld stealing votes that were rightfully hers. Weld's endorsement was too little too late to save us from Drumfpocalypse.

  • TGoodchild||

    Hysterical. Excellent trolling.

  • ||

    He said that Americans agree with each other, not with libertarians.

    Pretty much all Americans agree that the government should very tightly restrict immigration. To a first approximation, virtually all Democrats believe in exactly the same immigration policy as all but the most restrictionist Republicans.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You know, I'm going to nitpick here. I think one would be absolutely fair in calling Trump (I assume that's who you're talking about) a Nationalist, but it's a stretch to keep calling him a White Nationalist. I think Trump would be perfectly willing to separate Natural Born Americans, be they Hispanic, black, Indian, what have you, from the vague list of people trying to immigrate here, be they Irish, British, French or whatever 'white' nationality that could fit into that group.

  • vek||

    Well sock puppet, the truth is that most Americans have reasonable opinions on immigration... They just don't agree with open borders, OR the Democrats pseudo open borders by ignoring the law position.

    Most Americans if you look through all the different polling think:

    We should mostly only accept skilled immigrants.

    We should have either about the same or lower levels of immigration overall.

    We shouldn't have visa lotteries that let people in willy nilly, but it should always be merit based.

    We should enforce immigration law more strictly in the future.

    We should deport illegals that have criminal records for sure, and maybe even some who don't.

    I myself agree with all of that. They also think we should let DACA kids slide. These are centrist, reasonable, positions. I would be more than happy if we just did all of the above. This is basically all Trump wants, but the Democrats are going crazy about it. General restrictionists want to deport ALL illegal immigrants, close off new immigration almost entirely, and white nationalists of course only want to allow in more whites. None of that is what Trump wants. Trump is more or less in line with most Americans.

  • Nuwanda||

    That's not a reasonable policy to open borders advocates. To them, that violates *natural* human rights. These folks are open borders anarchists. No law is acceptable. There can be no reasonable law on borders because any such law violates natural rights. No debate is possible.

  • Rhywun||

    Yes, [the Republicans are] out of touch with young people. As far as never winning them back, never say never.

    I suppose they could give up any pretense of being the party of lower taxes and fiscal sanity. Anything to reel in the youth vote!

  • vek||

    They'd be better served by giving up the drug war and abortion! I don't know how many middle of the road people I know who are slightly fiscally conservative, but can't bring themselves to EVER vote R because of saaay abortion... Despite the fact that there is zero chance they will actually pass any laws that ban abortion. Some people just listen to the feelz too hard, and don't think things through.

    If the Rs were actually fiscally conservative in practice, and gave up the drug war, whining about abortion, and interventionist foreign policy, I'd more or less be 100% on board. The things I still disliked would be so far and few between that it would scarcely matter.

  • John||

    Voters are like cats and politicians are like dogs. Dogs care about everything and see everything as a great drama. Leave for an hour and your dog greats you the same way he would if you had been gone for a month. Cats, in contrast, don't give a shit. And voters in this country, thankfully, still largely don't give a shit and have other more important things to do, like have a life, than worry about politics.

  • Rich||

    Hi, John! Good observation.

  • John||


  • Rich||

    Fiorina argues that Americans actually agree with each other on fundamental issues such as immigration, marriage equality, and pot legalization.

    It depends on what the meaning of "actually agree with each other" is.

    Less snarkily: "We agree that the immigration system is broken", vice "We agree that the government should impose a ten-year moratorium on legal immigration".

    "We agree that spiritual unions of people who love each other should be respected", vice "We agree that the government should have nothing to do with 'marriage', unless that connotes a written contract".

    [Insert "agreed-upon" views about federalism, body ownership, et., etc.]

  • Calidissident||

    I'm kind of curious about the conclusion that it's just the elites in the bubble, when part of the interview brings up absurd beliefs about the other party held by common people (Democrats think 44% of Republicans make $250,000 a year or more, and Republicans think 38% of Democrats are LGBT).

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I think that's a good question. I think there may be a difference between regular voters who have wrong information but don't really give a shit, vs voters who have either right or wrong information and give a shit about it.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Well these are self identified Rs and Ds so they may be drinking their respective koolaids. But if these numbers are accurate (which I highly doubt), I suspect the sampling was of individuals from urban centers. There are entire towns in flyover country populated by lower middle class people that vote overwhelmingly R. I'm pretty sure the Ds in these places know that their neighbors aren't making 250K a year

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Journalists certainly do talk to political activists. Modern day journalists are talking to themselves whether there are news junkies listening in or not. There is no objectivity if they merely report dispassionately about what they see through their blinders. For some at least, it's a living until the bottom drops out. America is full of bubbles. Financial bubbles, and cliques of influential people with their heads stuck up their asses.

  • MarkLastname||

    This interview largely seems like an exercise in wish fulfillment. Gillespie still thinks the libertarian moment is just around the corner, and he'll never give that up, even if it's clear as day that, if the majority of Americans are going to reach a consensus in anything soon, it's that they want the opposite of libertarianism.

    Communitarianism is on the ascent on both sides. Call me a cynic, but in that world, the lonely individualist probably is best off when the rival communitarian tribes are fiercely at war with each other, not when they have reached a broad illiberal consensus.

  • ranrod||

    God knows I tried.
    Elections. For the love of God, if you don't hear anything else I say for the rest of the evening, listen to this.
    Elections are no longer free. They are staged theater, designed to maintain the illusion of representative governance and to enrich the political class. This is despotism. If after this mess that we just went through, if you do not understand this, you are beyond hope.

    My God.

    And then you have election fraud on top of it. Here in Colorado ten counties had voter turnout in excess of the total adult population of the [county]. Not just the registered voters – the total adult population of the county, excuse me, the county. And what did Romney do? Roll over. How can you not see this? How can you not understand? Do not talk to me anymore about elections. There are no elections. There are no more free elections. Just stand over that dead horse and beat it – it is never going to get up. For the love of God.

    I'm sorry, but there comes a certain point where you have got to pull your head out of your a ss and deal with reality. You cannot just keep going on with this over and over and over again, saying, "Well if I just give somebody some money and I put some signs in my yard I'm doing enough…"

    No, you're not doing enough. You're not doing enough at all. Not even close. In fact, if you're participating in this, you're part of the problem."

  • TGoodchild||

    This guy isn't nearly angry or irrational to feed my rageaholism. I wonder at whom or at which camera Lawrence O'Donnel is screaming at...

  • vek||

    He's right that neither party represents most people. So people pick and choose based off the issues THEY CARE MOST ABOUT. I choose economic issues, because while legal pot is cool, I really just don't give as much a fuck about that as all the communist economic issues Dems come with.

    If either party ever just went sane centrist route they'd win by leaps and bounds. If any third party ever wants to win a moderate libertarian position on all things is the ticket. Not legal crack, just legal pot. Not open borders, but sensible merit based immigration. Not abolish all schools, but school vouchers for all. Not no government welfare, but major welfare reform that creates proper incentive structures. And so on. Such a part would clean house. I'm for most of the extreme libertarian positions, but most people aren't, and never will be... And even I would settle for the above gladly compared to what we have now!

    Another billionaire needs to fire up a third party a la Perot or something, because otherwise I don't think any third party will have a chance.

  • tlapp||

    The 2 major parties. Democrats publicly state they want to take your individual and economic freedom and make all such decisions and Republicans that pretend to care about those things while they take those same freedoms.

    Trump is neither, he is some of the worst of the establishment but still regulatory roll back and judicial nominees are better than either party. Makes me wonder is the this the best we can do? Yuck

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "And this might even be better, Republicans think 38 percent of Democrats are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans."

    That's what comes of trusting what you see on TV. Sexual deviants are 2-3 percent of the general population, but vastly over-represented in media representations of the population, leading people to hugely over-estimate what proportion of the population are 'gay' or whatever. In a world where you think a quarter of the population are 'gay', why wouldn't you think more than a third of Democrats are?

    At the same time, the wealthy are also over-represented on TV; You'll see house hunting shows where people are looking for affordable mansions, and have half million dollar budgets, when most people are living in ranch homes in the 100K or below range.

    Basically, normal middle class people don't exist on TV, and as a result people who watch TV have a warped idea of what the population is like: Much blacker, hugely 'gayer', and much wealthier than real life.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I think a good deal of the problem is a consequence of the "campaign reforms" adopted over the last 30 years. While nominally aimed at corruption, what they really did was effectively render third parties non-viable in America.

    Once any alternatives to the two major parties were effectively eliminated, the parties no longer had to try to actually appeal to people. They just had to seem less awful than the only alternative people were allowed.

    You've got two parties full of people who hate their party, but are convinced that it's the lesser evil compared to the other party. They've welded the pressure cooker lid down, removed the escape valve, and it's building towards an explosion.

    The only real solution I see is proportional representation, but we won't get it until after that explosion.

  • ||

    They've welded...

    I see what you did there.


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