The Disappearing Center

I take a somewhat sanguine and utterly fatalistic line on the much-deplored increasing polarization of American politics. While the DC media remais obsessed with the idea that politicians should be nicer to one another, the reality is just that the decline of the Jim Crow system in the south has made the emergence of polarized, ideologically coherent parties inevitable. Alan Abramowitz’ important book The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy adds some critical society-level elements to this story. Tragically, I read the book in primitive paper-and-ink format which makes it challenging to reproduce charts, but Professor Abramowitz was kind enough to send me a few choice ones.

First, look at how well ideology lines up with voting behavior among voters who aren’t very knowledgeable compared to those who know what they’re talking about:

The implication here is that the existence of a large bloc of crossover voters is driven by the existence of a large bloc of people who don’t actually know anything about politics. Such voters might be swayed by candidate-personality factors, by group-loyalty factors, by regionalism, whatever. But among better-informed voters, people act the way they ought to — as if important systematic ideological differences exist and you ought to vote for the candidate whose ideology is more similar to yours.

And while political information isn’t a strict function of educational attainment, it is true in a rough and ready sense that better-educated people are better-informed about politics. And guess what’s been happening as we’ve become more polarized:


Abramowitz details evidence that “citizens with a college education are much more likely to understand ideological concepts ad to use these concepts to evaluate the parties and candidates” and also that “college graduates have more consistent beliefs across a wide range of issues than individuals with less formal education.” In other words, better educated people are more likely to listen to coalition merchants and more likely to apply ideological coalition concepts correctly. The right question to be asking is how should we adapt political institutions to a world of more sophisticated voters and more coherent, accountable parties.