WhyAmericanPoliticalPartiesCan TGetBeyondtheLeft RightDivide Essay

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Why American Political Parties Can’t Get Beyond the Left-Right Divide

Edward G. Carmines
Indiana University
Michael J. Ensley
Kent State University
Michael W. Wagner
University of Wisconsin

Presented at the State of the Parties Conference: 2012 and Beyond
The University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, November 7-8, 2013

In October of 2010, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman predicted that, “there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe claimed that this new party would not come from the right or the left, but the “radical center” which he claimed was tired of a failed two-party system. Two years later, Friedman followed up, promoting former U.S. comptroller general David Walker as an independent candidate who would appeal to moderate America. On the other side of the national paper of record’s ideological spectrum, columnist Ross Douthat, on the day after the 2012 election, wrote in one breath that
President Barack Obama’s re-election victory in 2012 was “a realignment” and in the next breath that it “may not even last after another four years.”
Popular accounts of American politics and predictions about its future like those described above are commonplace in contemporary political conversation. Whether the claims focus on a growing centrist goliath that brings the two major parties to their knees or describe a durable shift in the electorate that advantages one party over another, the element that these kinds of forecasts about the future of the American experiment have in common is the expectation of rapid, dramatic, and long-lasting change.
We argue that those who expect such vivid and enduring transformations in the American party system will be waiting awhile. Just as record low levels of approval for Congress and a continuing decline in trust in the government’s ability to do the right thing are not likely to translate into the rise of a viable, centrist third party, there is not much evidence that President Obama’s reelection has created a durable Democratic realignment (but see Judis and Teixeira 2004 for a treatment of a long-term change aiding the Democratic Party). When considering the state of the parties for 2012 and beyond in the United States, we argue that it is crucial to take into account the more diverse ideological orientations of the American electorate compared to the simple left/right


divide that characterizes the contemporary two party system. In particular, we explore a simple, but fundamental, question: what are the consequences of the discrepancy between the one-dimensional structure of elite policy preferences and the two-dimensional structure of citizens’ policy preferences? In this paper, we do just that in order to explain: 1) why many of those self-identifying as ideologically moderate are actually polarized from each other – making a centrist third-party’s rise very difficult; 2) why the parties are constrained in their ability to make major plays for parts of the electorate who do not share their ideological preferences; and finally 3) why, at the same time, just focusing on increasing the support from their core ideological supporters is unlikely to lead to a partisan majority.

The Contemporary Partisan Divide in the American Electorate
While partisan political elites are more polarized along a single left-right ideological continuum than they have been in several generations – nay, centuries (McCarty, Poole, and
Rosenthal 2006) – the coalitions supporting their bids for office on Election Day are structured in a way that makes sudden but durable change unlikely. The major reason is that the electorate does not solely divide its attitudes along the same left-right dimension that dominates elite debate. The
American public is made of polarized liberals and conservatives to be sure, but it