Friday, August 26, 2016

"Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America"

James E. Campbell is a UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America and reported the following:
If Polarized were a movie, page 99 would be an establishing shot. It introduces details of survey questions asked about two public policies: healthcare and employment. The analysis finds that opinions on these issues have not grown more extreme over the years, but have become more correlated with one another. Americans had divergent but less coordinated views. Now people taking a liberal (or conservative) stand on one issue are much more likely to take a liberal (or conservative) stand on the second issue. This intensifies “us versus them” polarized politics.

Page 99 plays a necessary role in developing this point, but does not really convey many of the book’s more important qualities. For instance, nothing on page 99 suggests the breadth of Polarized. It is comprehensive in reassessing polarization questions across the board–from questions about polarization within the public to questions about polarization between the parties. It answers questions as contemporary as whether one of the political parties is more responsible for increased polarization and as timeless as why the parties are polarized at all when they are supposed to be hell-bent on appealing to centrist swing voters? The answers to these questions draw on all sorts of evidence, but manage to avoid complicated statistics. It’s not light summer beach reading, but it is very accessible.

You also wouldn’t guess it from page 99, but Polarized overturns a great deal of conventional wisdom about polarization. For example, contrary to past research, a politically unsophisticated public can be highly ideological (p.80). America is not a largely moderate nation (p.65). Americans became fairly well polarized in the late 1960s (p.132) and have grown more so since (p.130). Republicans are no more responsible for increasing party polarization than are Democrats (p.192). The increased polarization of American politics was driven by “bottom-up” democratic politics, not imposed by “top-down” elite political forces (p.171). Finally, elections are not won by parties moving as close to the political center as possible (p.218). And there is much more.

If you want a firmly grounded understanding of modern American politics and how and why it has evolved as it has, Polarized is the ticket–but I’m afraid you would not get much of a clue about that from page 99. Sorry, Ford Madox Ford. For everyone else, read the book (246 pages of text). It’s good for you (apologies to Guinness) and for American democracy.
Learn more about Polarized at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue