Autumn 2010: Of Note

Cover of book

Choosing Sides

Right, left—or moderate?

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

If you chose option C, then chances are you are not really engaged in politics or social issues at all. At least, that’s one of the theories put forth by political scientist Alan Abramowitz in his recent book, The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. Abramowitz suggests that the increasing political polarization in America is not so much due to a divide between left and right, but between those who care and those who don’t.

“Political engagement is a continuous variable rather than a simple dichotomy,” Abramowitz writes. “Partisan-ideological polarization is greatest among those individuals whose beliefs and behavior most closely reflect the ideals of responsible democratic citizenship—that is, the engaged public.”

And the engaged public, he says, is the group that elected officials are most concerned about—so if politically active people are more extreme, the tenor of politics will be more extreme, too.

One of the negative consequences of this trend is raised voices and angry talk. “Heated rhetoric is a problem,” Abramowitz says. “It tends to produce very emotional reactions on the part of people watching. It’s not just that they disagree, but that they feel the opposition is immoral, and they question not just their judgment but even whether they are people of goodwill. We don’t need to be questioning the other side’s legitimacy or morality. We can disagree without taking it to that level.”

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