Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog



By Shawn Healy
I have long admired the work of political scientist Morris Fiorina, for he manages to bridge the divide between academia and practical politics better than anyone else in the field. His three-decade old retrospective voting model remains a paramount explanation for individual voting behavior at a macro level. More recently, Fiorina confronted what he considers a false Red State-Blue State paradigm in Culture War?, where he disproves that the 2004 presidential election was decided on "gays, God, and guns." Disconnect (Oklahoma U. Press, 2009, 196pp) is the latest installment of a research project contending that political polarization is elite-driven and not reflected in the general electorate.

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.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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