A breakdown in US democratic representation

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US Congress © trekandshoot - Fotolia.comThe US political class no longer represents the country at large. The two main parties have become increasingly extreme, leaving a centrist electorate behind, according to Morris Fiorina of Stanford University in a lecture at the EUI.

Recent US elections have given the impression the country is politically deeply divided, with national elections hinging on a small number of swing states with the others firmly either Republican or Democrat.

However, polls suggest that 40 per cent of Americans consider themselves independents, with the same figure self-identifying as moderates. This is a higher figure than those who poll as Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative.

“The political class has become increasingly polarised,” said Fiorina. “Just before the Regan years the Republicans began a sharp turn to the right.” The Democratic Party has also moved away from the centre although data suggests at a slower pace.

“When Nixon was first elected, a third of voters regarded the Republicans as conservative or extremely conservative. This is now at two thirds. When Kennedy was elected only half of those polled saw a difference between the two parties, now it’s 80 percent.”

Moderates in both parties have either been pushed out, or have disengaged from politics meaning both parties are more clearly sorted, rather than the country has become polarised, suggested Fiorina.

This has resulted in a partisan political class trying to represent a centrist electorate leading to a fall in genuine representation and a lack of trust. Support for the US Congress currently stands at 10 per cent.

Fiorina says this phenomenon has as much to do with sociological issues as political ones. Shifts in the demography of the voters including ageing, the movement of ethnic groups from one region to another and the growth or decline populations in certain parts of the country have broken old voting collations, while media coverage encourages differentiation.

There has also been a continual opening up of democracy, shining more light on the process, and giving the population more space to express themselves.

Instead of making the system more representative the result is an over representation of strong positions. “There are less restrictions to participate,” summarised Fiorina, “but only the partisans participate.”