A study of an American public grown more ideologically conflicted since the 1960s and why—or whether—it matters.
There are no givens in this academic, slow-moving work by Campbell (Political Science/Univ. of Buffalo; The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote, 2008, etc.), not even a consensus among theorists whether or not the American electorate is polarized or whether polarization is due to the top-down ideological thrust of political elites. After wading through reams of evidence and graphs, the author asserts that the American public has indeed grown more polarized since the turbulence of the 1960s, as issues surrounding Vietnam and war protests, civil rights, rioting in the cities, assassinations, marches, and rallies—all magnified by demographics—divided public attention and clarified the lines between the two parties. Hence, Campbell attests, this is a bottom-up polarization rather than top-down. From there, the author delves into possible theories about why the parties, which from the 1930s to the 1980s were “insufficiently distinct to provide voters with a real and accountable choice,” became more sharply polarized. The theories include the role of gerrymandering, income inequality, ideological activists, partisan media, and polarizing presidents. But Campbell finds a more nuanced cause, namely the “staggered party realignment,” especially as Southern Democrats moved Republican over racial divides, beginning with elections in 1958 and 1964. In the end, the two parties grew more competitive and symmetrical, meaning the Democrats moved more to the left and the Republicans to the right. Further clarifying the ideological divide were the Ronald Reagan “revolution” of 1980 and the midterm elections of 1994. Moreover, while winning the center has always been crucial to election outcomes, each party must tend carefully to the ideological extreme due to low turnout rates. Campbell finds this polarization as evidence not of dysfunctional government so much as simply a period of unavoidable conflict within an otherwise robust democracy.
A painstakingly methodical, exhausting process to conclude that there is really nothing to worry about.