Much research has gone into studying the political polarization that has gripped American politics. Why have the two American parties moved to the extremes? One explanation, championed by MIT Professor Noam Chomsky is that the Republicans have ceased to be a functioning party. Chomsky claims that the GOP has wholly given itself over to the rich, and in order to win elections has been forced to appeal to the radical fringes of American society, who he defines as Evangelicals, nativists, racists and gun fanatics.
Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argues that rather than the GOP moving to the right, it’s the Democrats who have moved dramatically to the left. Wehner argues that while Bill Clinton revived the Democrats from nearly twenty years of political defeats by abandoning left-wing politics and embracing centrist policies, Obama ran as an unabashed liberal, and today Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have only followed suit. There may be other, less directly political reasons.
A Princeton study claims that political polarization has been a frequent occurrence as inequality has increased in the United States, and extremism has been a regular response to economic woes. Another study by UC Berkeley places the blame not on the parties or society, but on the voters themselves, who political scientist David Broockman argues have spontaneously become fanaticized, even more so than their representatives.
These are all interesting ideas, but most lack hard numbers, and what little numbers are offered come from selective results of specific poll questions asked to a few thousand people at most. If we were to look at the total voting practices of the American people, what insight could we draw? I set about to do just that and have concluded that the driving force of political polarization in America is from profound voter apathy. I am not saying that Chomsky, Wehner, Broockman or any other political theorists are necessarily wrong, but while their arguments seek to explain why the two extremes have become ascendant they fail to address or minimize the shocking disappearance of the moderates in both parties. The disappearance of the center, particularly in the primaries, explains political polarization in America, not the rise of the fringes.
Pundits and political experts have placed far more emphasis on primaries over the past six years due to the rise of the Tea Party. Despite the evident surge in media attention by elites and massive donations by the super-rich on both sides, the presence of voters in the primaries has been collapsing to all-time lows. In 1972, 30.9% of registered voters participated in the primaries. That number has dropped nearly every year, to 21.7% in 1992 at the beginning of the Clinton era, and 19% in 2000. In 2008, in the heavily-contested race between Clinton and Obama, primary turnout hit 30.3%. But that spike proved to be a one-time oddity, as in 2012 the primary voter rate for both parties declined to an all-time low of 15.9%, or nearly half the rate forty years ago.
What makes this even more striking is an accompanying decline in total voter registration. In 1972, 72.3% of Americans eligible to vote were registered. In 2012 that number dropped to 65.1% (in 2014 this declined further to 64.6%) for a 7.9 percentage point difference. The drop in voter registration combined with a drop in primary voter participation of eligible voters has resulted in an overall decline of 54% in primary voter participation from the last generation to the current one. More than half of voters have ceased to engage in the ideological formation of our two parties in any meaningful way, leaving the most die-hard 46% to dominate politics. To put that in perspective, let us hypothesize that 7 out of 10 Republicans and a similar 7 out of 10 Democrats have moderate, mostly rational views. Now imagine that the most moderate 5 of 10 left each party; this would leave a distribution of 3 fringe voters for every 2 moderates. Even if the center had previously been the supermajority a drastic decline of the sort we have witnessed between 1972 and 2012 could easily explain the sudden extremism of the party. This demographic collapse in primary voters may explain the rise of extremism far better than the supposition that the majority of people on the right and left have substantially changed their ideologies and adopted extremist positions.
Any serious conversation on the polarization of American politics cannot ignore the drop in primary voters, though up to this point it mostly has. While the general elections decide whether conservatism or liberalism are dominant at the time, the primaries decide what conservatism and liberalism are. In 1972 when twice as many Republicans participated in the primaries, some of the main points in their platform were nuclear arms reduction, increased government protection for the environment, a 7% tax increase on those making $100,000 or more, and the increase of “trade and cultural exchanges as ways of improving understanding between [the U.S. and China].” In 1972 the DNC supported the Drug War and efforts to maximize coal efficiency. These policies would be unthinkable to GOP and DNC primary voters forty years later. This may have more to do with the fact that the most moderate 60% of voters have disappeared from the political landscape, rather than a change in ideology from the majority of voters.
What effect does the disappearance of the center have on the structure of American politics? To understand this it is necessary to first outline the general election process. Of the 322 million American citizens only 208,012,000 (64.6%) are registered to vote. 32% of Americans identify as Democrats while 23% identify as Republicans or 67 million and 48 million respectively, with the rest identifying as Independent or belonging to third parties. In 2012, Mitt Romney was only able to win 10 million votes out of 19 million primary votes cast on his way to the nomination. Considering that the Republican Party has 48 million members, hardly a third of Republicans showed up to the polls, perhaps fewer due to Independents voting in the twenty-seven open primaries. The Democratic Party appears to have even lower turnout than the Republicans based on the 2004 race, but even if the Democrats exhibit similar voting patterns, one can expect less than 27 million to vote, in a party comprised of 67 million people.
Furthermore, one only needs around 50% of the primary vote to win the nomination, and the last two primary competitions were near that figure (53% for Romney 2012, 47% for Obama in 2008). In order to win the GOP nomination Trump, Cruz, Carson or whoever takes 2016’s trophy will only need to win in the range of 10 million votes, or 3% of the total US population. Meanwhile, in order to win the DNC nomination, Clinton or Sanders will only need to win roughly 14 million votes, or 4% of the total US population, meaning that the ideologies of America’s two ruling political parties are decided by a mere 7% of the total population. To put this in perspective, in 1972, 22.3% of Americans who were eligible to vote participated in the formation of their party’s ideology.
Chomsky and Wehner are not necessarily wrong. Perhaps the GOP has become too dependent on rich donors to connect with the average voter, while the Democrats have moved too far to the left for many who constituted Bill Clinton’s former base. But what is clear is that forty years ago nearly a quarter of eligible Americans voted in the primaries, playing a direct hand in the formation of their party’s ideology, while today that number is closer to one in ten. While the near-universal consensus among pundits and political theorists is that politics has become too polarizing, this extremism has emerged not from fanaticized voters, but from an apathetic middle that has almost completely disappeared from the political landscape. The absence of moderate voters has only had a multiplying effect, as extremist candidates drive out even more centrists from the voting pool.
Gary Girod is currently pursuing a Ph.D in modern Western European labor history at the University of Houston, and graduate of Chapman University.