Morris Fiorina, Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics

Thomas E. Mann
Content Type
Journal Article
Political Science Quarterly
Issue Number
Publication Date
Winter 2010-2011
Academy of Political Science
No abstract is available.
Political Geography
POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY Volume 125 • Number 4 • Winter 2010-11 No part of this article may be copied, downloaded, stored, further transmitted, transferred, distributed, altered, or other wise used, in any form or by any means, except: .. one stored electronic and one paper copy of any article solely for your personal, noncommercial use, or .. with prior written permission of The Academy of Political Science. Political Science Quarterly is published by The Academy of Political Science. Contact the Academy for further permission regarding the use of this work. Political Science Quarterly Copyright © 2010 by The Academy of Political Science. All rights reserved. The Academy of Political Science 475 Riverside Drive • Suite 1274 • New York, New York 10115-1274 (212) 870-2500 • FAX: (212) 870-2202 • • in arguing for the superiority of unitary actor approaches in the abstract, Posner puts the cart (specification of assumptions) before the horse (identification of research questions) in a manner reminiscent of the least-productive aspects of the “paradigm wars” in international relations theory. Most problematically, Posner advocates wholesale dismissal of arguments that incorporate sub-state and non-governmental actors on grounds that they add complexity but fail to improve upon the predictive power of unitary actor approaches. Posner reaches this verdict by reexamining arguments advanced by Harold Koh and others concerning, for example, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, U.S. counter-insurgency practices in Central America, and the failure of several states to join the international treaty banning land mines. Posner in each case finds, using indisputably post hoc analysis, that focusing on state interests provides a simpler way of understanding what happened. Logically, however, these examples cannot provide support for the predictive power of Posner's approach—unless, of course, Posner is content to “predict” things that have already happened. Posner's attempt to undercut global legalism is simply overly ambitious. To the extent that arguments advanced by global legalists sometimes fail to convince, it hardly follows that the ideas and approaches in question should be summarily abandoned. They should instead be reformulated, retested, and given adequate scope conditions. A general, although certainly unintended implication of Posner's analysis in The Perils of Global Legalism is that empirical scholarship in international law can only benefit from a further broadening of approaches, rather than the theoretically motivated narrowing Posner advocates. TONYA L. PUTNAM Columbia University Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics by Morris Fiorina. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2009. 249 pp. $39.95. Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina has made an important contribution to a lively public and scholarly debate about the extent, sources, and consequences of polarization in contemporary American politics. Fiorina first weighed into this debate in the summer of 2004 with the provocative Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, which challenged journalistic accounts of an electorate riven by deep disagreement on fundamental questions of public policy. He argued that a newly polarized political class was strikingly out of sync with a mostly moderate citizenry not much more divided than they were a generation ago. Disconnect, based on his 2005 Rothbaum Lectures at the University of Oklahoma, updates, refines, and extends the analyses and arguments set forth in Culture War, explores why the political class has become disconnected from the larger public, weighs the benefits and 702 | POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY (considerably larger) costs of these new politics for representative government, and speculates on several new developments that might push American politics in a healthier direction. This latest volume profits from Fiorina's characteristically careful empirical analysis and thorough consideration of evidence and arguments by scholars who do not share his view that polarization is largely confined to political elites. Many of his specific findings on public opinion and reflections on the institutional and social roots of elite polarization will be persuasive to those scholars. For example, the public surely remains less ideological, more pragmatic, and less interested and engaged in public affairs than the political class, and their electoral choices reflect more than determine the choices that are put before them. Political elites maneuver more to shape rather than to reflect public opinion. Hot-button social issues of transcendent importance to activists seldom register high on the list of priorities for the broad public. The style and tone of political debate is often unsettling to ordinary citizens. But as a number of scholars have demonstrated (most recently Alan Abramowitz in The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Politics), critical parts of the public have been pulled in the same directions as political elites. Voters are more ideologically polarized than nonvoters; more-informed and more-engaged voters are more polarized than less-informed and less-engaged voters; and more-educated voters are more polarized than less-educated voters. Most (not all) of Fiorina's analysis of public opinion is based upon the entire citizenry, which leads him to minimize these politically important distinctions. Moreover, the partisan lenses through which voters view the political world produce profoundly different preferences and perceptions of reality—from evaluations of presidential performance and the state of the economy to the efficacy of fiscal stimulus and the desirability of health reform. Fiorina acknowledges that citizens as well as political elites have sorted themselves between the political parties along ideological lines, which has produced greater party homogeneity and distinctiveness. But he relegates this ideological polarization of the parties within the public to a secondary role (he labels it “party sorting”), much less important than the relatively stable public positions on most policy issues. This is the crux of the scholarly debate. Fiorina sees the problems of American politics associated with polarization as largely an elite phenomenon in which the political class fails to connect with and represent the public—an instinctively wise and pragmatic citizenry frustrated by “Washington.” Others see a polarization dynamic deeply rooted in an engaged public—one whose own often extreme views give sustenance and encouragement to their elected representatives. A fascinating debate of critical importance to the future of American politics and governance. THOMAS E. MANN The Brookings Institution BOOK REVIEWS | 703