Unstable Majorities

Unstable Majorities

Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate

Author: Morris P. Fiorina
ISBN: 978-0-8179-2115-6
Publication Date: 11/1/2017

The American public is not as polarized as pundits say

In Unstable Majorities Morris P. Fiorina confronts one of the most commonly held assumptions in contemporary American politics: which is that voters are now more polarized than ever. Bringing research and historical context to his discussion of the American electorate and its voting patterns, he corrects misconceptions about polarization, voter behavior, and political parties, arguing that party sorting—not polarization—is the key to understanding our current political turbulence. Today’s political parties, he shows, are more homogenous internally and more distinct from one another than previously. Voters are responders, not initiators in the political process, able only to choose between the candidates the parties nominate and often dissatisfied with those choices.

Analyzing past eras in American history, he looks at different patterns of institutional control of the presidency, House, and Senate. He examines the consequences of party sorting, especially the gridlock and incivility that define twenty-first-century American politics. He also examines key factors of contemporary politics—including the role of media, polls, swing voters, and independents—in the context of global trends such as the rise of populism and far-right parties in Western Europe.

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Morris P. Fiorina

Morris P. Fiorina is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. His current research focuses on elections and public opinion with particular attention to the quality of representation: how well the positions of elected officials reflect the preferences of the public.

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Review by: John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke - August 25, 2017
In Unstable Majorities Fiorina makes a series of very important arguments about the American electoral process and the role of the public in it. Although completed not long after the election, Fiorina is able to offer early wisdom about the Trump election and the Trump era. The public, he demonstrates, has long been and continues to be basically moderate in its ideological and policy views. The public votes with high degrees of consistency in large part because the parties so consistently select the same kinds of candidates—liberal Democrats facing off against conservative Republicans. Given the same alternatives, the public tends to vote the same from election to election. Trump’s victory, in his view, was essentially continuous with the series of elections in the twenty-first century. In net, only a small proportion of the electorate changed its choices from 2012 to 2016. It is the nature of simple majority rule that, in reasonably close contests, yields the vast changes we observe, such as between Trump and Obama.
Review by: Andrew Gelman, Professor, Department of Statistics and Department of Politi - August 25, 2017
In this impassioned yet scholarly book Fiorina explores the instability that has resulted in recent American politics, as a generally moderate and conflicted electorate has been forced to choose among options served up to them by increasingly polarized political parties and activists. The paradox is that voters increasingly follow the party line but political outcomes have become wildly oscillating and unpredictable. As Fiorina explains we can only understand voters in the context of the choices they face.
Review by: Marc Joseph Hetherington, Vanderbilt University - August 25, 2017
Few, if any, write as clearly and persuasively about politics as Mo Fiorina. Many will pick up this book thinking that polarization in the electorate is as obvious as the fact that the sun rises in the east, but they will immediately find themselves on their heels. Excellent scholarship causes us to question what we were sure was true, and no one causes us to do that as reliably as Fiorina.
Review by: Lynn Vavreck, PhD, UCLA Political Science & Communication Studies - August 25, 2017
Once again Mo Fiorina shows us how institutions matter by reminding readers that voters are only as good as the choices in front of them. The implication in the wake of the 2016 presidential election is important: voters haven’t failed democracy, party leaders have failed voters. To rehabilitate the reputation of voters in America, political elites must recruit and nominate candidates worthy of being chosen who, once elected, may actually reflect the positions of most voters—near the middle. Unstable Majorities is a classic Fiorina antidote to the hysteria of cable news and the panic among those who tend only to talk to others just like themselves.
Review by: Frances Lee, University of Maryland - August 25, 2017
Here Fiorina zeroes in on the most significant and distinctive features of the contemporary US political landscape: tenuous party control of government, nationalized elections, and dissatisfied voters. The book is highly readable, rich with insight, packed with concise figures and data, and likely to interest broad audiences inside and outside academia.
Review by: James E. Campbell, author of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America. - August 25, 2017
Are Americans and their political parties highly polarized? Fiorina set off a great debate over this question in Culture Wars? Now, after an intervening decade of turbulent politics, he revisits the question in Unstable Majorities. Whether or not you arrive at the same answers about polarization that he does, his thought-provoking analysis is must reading for anyone seriously interested in American politics.

Chapter 1. An Era of Tenuous Majorities
Chapter 2. Has the American Public Polarized?
Chapter 3. The Political Parties Have Sorted
Chapter 4. Party Sorting and Democratic Politics
Chapter 5. The Temptation to Overreach
Chapter 6. Independents: The Marginal Members of an Electoral Coalition
Chapter 7. The (Re)Nationalization of Congressional Elections
Chapter 8. Is the US Experience Exceptional?
Chapter 9. A Historical Perspective
Chapter 10. The 2016 Presidential Election – An Abundance of Controversies
Chapter 11. The 2016 Presidential Election – Identities, Class, and Culture
Chapter 12. Where To Now?
About the Author

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