Let's conduct a quick thought experiment. Consider a hypothetical scenario, where you are eligible to vote in two states, but you can only cast a vote in one. Both state have upcoming gubernatorial elections, and both elections are expected to be close. In the first state, the two major candidates provide a clear contrast to one another, and with significant differences in public policy hinging on the outcome. In the second state, there does not appear to be a clear contrast between the two major candidates, and no clear difference in public policy hinging on the outcome. When presented with these two choices, would anyone choose to vote in the second state? I think not. The overwhelming majority of people would choose to vote in the state where a clear difference in public policy appears to be at stake.
Since 1952, the National Election Survey has tracked whether or not voters feel there are important differences between the two major parties. In the four presidential election years since 1992, by an average margin of 66% to 31%, national sentiment has overwhelmingly concluded that there are important differences. Records were set on this question in both 1996 and 2000, but in 2004 that sentiment reached by far its highest levels ever, when the nation concluded that there are important differences between the two major parties by a count of 76%--20%. By comparison, in the five presidential elections from 1972 to 1988, the average national score on this question was 55%--37% in favor of there being important differences. It is pretty safe to assume that the increasing belief that there are major differences between the two parties is the result of increased "polarization" of the two parties, a phenomenon often bemoaned by the Lieber-punditry nationwide.
In, in keeping with the thought experiment in the first paragraph of this article, what frequently goes unnoticed by these same Lieber-pundits is that increasing polarization and belief that there are important differences between the two parties has also resulted in an increase in voter turnout. In the four Presidential elections from 1992 to 2004, average voter turnout among the Voting Eligible Population was 57.1%. In the five previous Presidential elections, from 1972 to 1988, average turnout among the Voting Eligible Population was 55.4%. Polarization has resulted in an increased belief that there are important differences between the two parties, which has in turn resulted in an increase in voter turnout. This feels pretty obvious to me, since people are more likely to vote in elections where they feel important differences are at stake rest than in elections where they do not feel important differences rest on the outcome. For partially lobotomized pundits, however, this rather obvious trend is difficult to spot:
There are, as they say, two Americas. There is the America of the rich and the America of the poor, as Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards likes to point out.(…)
But the real divide, the separation that may matter more to the future of American democracy, is between the political junkies and everyone else. The junkies watch endless cable-TV news shows and listen to angry talk radio and feel passionate about their political views. They number roughly 20 percent of the population, according to Princeton professor Markus Prior, who tracks political preferences and the media. Then there's all the rest: the people who prefer ESPN or old movies or videogames or Facebook or almost anything on the air or online to politics. Once upon a time, these people tended to be political moderates; now they are turned off or tuned out. Aside from an uptick in the 2004 presidential election, voter turnout has drifted downward since its modern peak in 1960 (from 63 percent to the low 50s), despite much easier rules on voter registration and expensive efforts to get out voters, writes Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "The Vanishing Voter."
Oh Lord. Do pundits blame every problem in America on polarization? Were certain parts of their brains removed and replaced with a repeating message decrying the lack of cozy bipartisanship nationwide? It sure seems like this sometimes. You want to know why it seems like voter turnout is decreasing, when in fact the opposite is occurring? Over the last forty years, changes in public policy have resulted in both a wave of new immigration and a wave of felony voter disenfranchisement. These two trends have greatly increased the number of people over the age of 18 who do not vote simply because their citizenship status and / or past felonies render them ineligible to vote. However, when one looks only at those over the age of 18 who are legally eligible to vote, there can be no denying that voter turnout over the last fifteen years is higher than in the twenty preceding years. See here and here, if you don't believe me that voter turnout is increasing amongst those who are eligible to vote. Voting Age Population estimates is a crude, inaccurate measure of voter turnout that has been utterly discredited by recent work by McDonald and Popkin, and resulted in a new statistic called Voting Eligible Population. This is important, because the VEP stat appeared on the political science scene (late 2001) just as Patterson's "Vanishing Voter" book was being completed (it was released in mid-2002, and so it was clearly completed at an earlier dare). In other words, the new voter turnout statistic, VEP, quickly discredited VAP, which Patterson used in his work. Here is a quick summary of the two statistics:
The voting-age population (VAP), which includes non-citizens and felons ineligible to vote, and excludes expatriate citizens who could legally vote from overseas: VAP estimates provide the lowest turnout levels because they underestimate actual turnout.
The vote-eligible population (VEP), a measure developed by McDonald and Popkin (2001), which is voting-age population minus disenfranchised felons minus noncitizens plus eligible overseas citizens: VEP estimates provide (correctly) higher measures of turnout than VAP.
While Voting Age Population statistics do indeed show a continuing decline in voter turnout (apart from 2004), the more accurate, voting eligible population statistics developed in recent years show that voter turnout is gradually increasing nationwide, and has been doing so for the past fifteen years. Why on Earth would anyone include people who are not legally eligible to vote in voter turnout statistics?
Even if one looks only at the inaccurate and incomplete Voting Age Population statistics, it is remarkable that pundits are quick to argue that moderates are the ones who are no longer turning out to vote. Such arguments are based on absolutely nothing factual. As I indicated above, the real reason VAP stats show a downward trend in voter turnout is because new immigrants and disenfranchised felons are no longer voting. Such groups are indeed alienated from the rest of America, but not because they are centrist moderates. They are, instead, alienated because they have largely been pushed to the fringes of our economy, culture and public sphere. In fact, there is mounting evidence to show that this alienation is the cause of increased polarization in America:
In Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal examine the relationships of polarization, wealth disparity, immigration, and other forces, characterizing it as a dance of give and take and back and forth causality.
Using NOMINATE (a quantitative procedure that, like interest group ratings, scores politicians on the basis of their roll call voting records) to measure polarization in Congress and public opinion, census data and Federal Election Commission finance records to measure polarization among the public, the authors find that polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and rose together dramatically from 1977 on; they trace a parallel rise in immigration beginning in the 1970s. They show that Republicans have moved right, away from redistributive policies that would reduce income inequality. Immigration, meanwhile, has facilitated the move to the right: non-citizens, a larger share of the population and disproportionately poor, cannot vote; thus there is less political pressure from the bottom for redistribution than there is from the top against it. In "the choreography of American politics" inequality feeds directly into political polarization, and polarization in turn creates policies that further increase inequality.
Not only has polarization increased voter turnout in America, it actually sets up a vicious cycle of inequality that will continue to increase polarization and voter turnout until income inequality decreases. In fact, punditry that decries an oppressed American center and ignores the real cause of polarization is actually continuing this process of immigrant and felony alienation that led to polarization in the first place. Middle class moderates are not the ones being screwed by polarization. Instead, the most vulnerable members of American society, the poor, are. Ironically, as long as pundits fail to recognize this, the polarization they decry so vociferously will only continue to increase.