His basic argument suggests that we correlate voters' decisions to back liberal and conservative candidates with ideological alignment, yet most of us don't hold extreme positions on any number of issues, abortion most prominent among them. Moreover, our worldviews lack the clarity of the political class, and we fail to line up uniformly behind ideologically coherent party platforms. Thus the "disconnect" between the wider electorate and the ruling political class.
Fiorina attributes the current fiercely polarized political environment to a plethora of factors. While the regional sorting by party that encompassed Republican replacement of conservative Democrats in the South, and Democratic takeovers of seats formerly held by moderate and liberal Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest, explains about one-third of contemporary polarization, additional and less heralded factors account for the balance.
Robert Putnam famously documents the decline of civic organizations in Bowling Alone, and Fiorina argues that these heterogeneous and inclusive organizations were replaced by more homogeneous and exclusive single-interest groups. Abortion, environmental, and religious groups are among the most prominent examples. Rather than stimulating civic engagement and integrating their members into politics, these emerging groups fan the flames of partisan animosity and for the most part engage their members in mere check-writing causes to further their exploits.
Fiorina also claims that the stakes of winning and losing have increased in today's political environment, further stoking partisan animosity. The irony is that the field of political science, the author included, long called for "responsible party government" where the two major parties offered distinctive platforms and upon victory implemented their entire agenda. Then, during the next election cycle, voters would be the ultimate judges of their success or lack thereof. Their writing accompanied the 1960's and 1970's when the two parties were relatively heterogeneous ideologically and their overall power in relative decline.
The scene changed during the Reagan years and perhaps most prominently in 1994 when Republicans recaptured Congress for the first time in a generation, effectively nationalizing an election under the "Contract with America." Parties and partisanship returned in full force, alternating between unified party control and gridlock. In retrospect, Fiorina prefers the earlier era he once lamented, contending that it was at least friendlier and perhaps not less productive.
Most disappointing is Fiorina's failure to illuminate means of breaking this partisan stalemate. Legislative redistricting, the merits of it withstanding, is by no means the panacea that many of its proponents lay claim. The same holds true for campaign finance reform. Fiorina even allows that it may perpetuate the problem given its protection of ideological incumbents. Party primaries, though the most often attract an unrepresentative sample of the electorate, yield little discernible difference in this respect when their open and closed varieties are placed side-by-side for the sake of comparison.
Fiorina does offer the prospect that the hot issues of the day may soon recede into the rearview mirror of history. Among them are the lingering cultural clashes of the 1960's, the current anti-immigrant fervor, and the changing nature of what formerly constituted the "religious right." He also makes way for a transformational figure, and sincerely hopes that President Obama is that man. Early returns predict quite the opposite, as he may prove every bit the "divider" of his predecessor.