Continental Divide

The Disappearing Center
Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy
Alan I. Abramowitz
Yale University Press, $35, 194 pp.

Among elected officials, journalists, and average citizens, intensifying partisan polarization is thought to be one of the dominant political trends of our times. Yet it has proved remarkably controversial among political scientists.

Some dimensions of polarization are not in question. For the first time in modern history (and maybe ever), there is no ideological overlap between the two major parties. According to the standard political-science index, the most conservative Democratic senator is a bit more liberal than is the most liberal Republican senator. Even more remarkably, the same is true in the House of Representatives. If the core of what we mean by the “center” of American politics is the overlap between the parties, then in a very real sense the center has disappeared.

At the same time, party unity, discipline, and centralization are stronger than they were a generation ago. Back then, legislative bipartisanship meant starting from the center and building out. Today, it usually means that one party tries to pick off a handful of the other party’s members. President Barack Obama came into office pledging to change this. While he has managed to enact some of his major policy initiatives, he has failed to bridge the partisan divide in Congress. Historians will debate whether he could have succeeded with a different strategy. But it’s hard to deny that he began with the deck stacked against him.

The core of the disagreement about polarization...

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About the Author

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.