Campus News

Lecturer: American public ‘not extreme,’ but political parties are

America is still a nation of moderates, said Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina; it’s just ruled by the extremes of its political parties.

Overreach is why neither the Republicans nor Democrats have been able to maintain control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the last two decades, said Fiorina, who delivered the George S. Parthemos Lecture Feb. 12 at the Miller Learning Center.

Fiorina, the Wendt Family Professor at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, gave a lecture titled “Tenuous Majorities, Party Sorting and the American Electorate.”

While American political discourse may seem as extreme as ever, Fiorina said, the electorate, as a whole, still favors moderation.

“The American public is not extreme,” he said. “They’re pragmatic and not ideological.”

However, through what political scientists call “party sorting,” each party has become less ideologically diverse, Fiorina said. The way the system works is that political partisans—the people with the more extreme political positions—have the biggest voice in how a majority party governs. But since there are about an equal number of Americans who support Republicans and Democrats, it is America’s independent or moderate voters who decide who takes or keeps power.

Because each party continues to overestimate its mandate, political power continues to swap hands.

Fiorina describes a political landscape where it’s difficult to predict what is coming next, especially in the current presidential campaign.

“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on this year,” he said.

Fiorina believes the party that finds success in appealing to and keeping moderates will be the one to break the current cycle and stay in power.

“Somebody has got to win and not overreach, and govern in a way that the American public finds acceptable,” he said.

When asked why parties overreach, Fiorina talked about primary voters—largely the most partisan voters—who gravitate toward the candidates most likely to overreach. And that’s who gets sent to the general election.

Describing the motivation of voters, he said, “They would rather lose with the candidate they like than to win with one they don’t.”