It’s conventional wisdom in political circles that California, like the rest of the country, has become more polarized in recent years. Just watch any election campaign or session of the Legislature and it seems clear that we are a hopelessly divided people.
But is that really true?
It might not be.
There is good reason to believe that our politics and government are far more sharply divided than our people, that our representatives are not a very good representation of ourselves.
And, at least in California, there is a counter-intuitive reason for that trend.
Every year, more Californians declare their independence from the political parties, deciding to register to vote without choosing a party preference. Many do so because they find the parties too rigid, too extreme, or are turned off by the idea that all of their beliefs are supposed to fit neatly within someone else’s framework.
But as moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans abandon the parties, they are leaving those parties to the true believers, the party activists and ideologues for whom compromise and pragmatism are dirty words.
The result: the parties are becoming smaller, but more polarized. And since the political parties still control the political system and, ultimately, the government, these institutions also become polarized. That’s the twist: the more that Californians are repelled by this polarization and quit party politics, the more they leave politics to the partisans, and the worse the problem gets. It feeds on itself.
The latest numbers show that more than 21 percent of California voters are now registered without a party, double the share of the electorate that declined to state a party preference 20 years ago. At the same time, the percentage of Californians who are members of the Democratic Party has declined from 49.1 percent to 43.4 percent, and the share that is Republican dropped from 37 percent to 30.2 percent.
Just since the last presidential election, the actual number of independent voters has grown by 200,000. (to 3.65 million) while the total number of registered voters has remained about flat.
To be sure, not all independent voters are moderates, or even truly independent. A plurality identify with the Democratic Party, according to surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California. In fact, their split, when pushed, is almost identical to the electorate as a whole: 43 percent lean toward the Democrats, and 30 percent lean toward the Republicans.
But there are reasons that these voters do not register as members of the parties with which they tend to identify. One reason may simply be that Americans are less and less inclined to identify with big institutions. Churches, labor unions and civic groups have all seen a decline in membership, and political parties are no different. With the advent of the Internet, more people have decided that when it comes to gathering information about candidates and issues, they can do for themselves what they once depended on the parties to do for them.
But it’s common sense that the people most likely to leave the parties are those for whom party politics is least attractive. And as they exit, their absence creates a bigger gap between the parties than used to exist. A higher percentage of registered Democrats now call themselves liberal than a decade ago, and more of those who remain Republicans think of themselves as conservative.
“It’s a distilling effect,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute and a longtime California pollster.
Baldassare’s surveys have shown how this distillation of party purity translates into positions on policy.
On the question of whether government regulation of business does more harm than good, for example, Democrats have always tended to think it does more good, while Republicans think it does harm. But the gap between the two parties on that question has grown from 26 percent in 2000 to 43 percent today.
In 2000 there was a 15-percentage point gap between the parties on whether environmental regulation came at a cost of economic growth and jobs. Today that gap is 35 percent.
And on the matter of whether immigrants are a burden because they use too many public services, the gap between the parties has grown from 14 percent in 2000 to 32 percent today.
How long will this trend continue? As party participation becomes a smaller and smaller share of the electorate, the parties will become more and more divided, and, probably, more combative in their approaches to one another. But if the past is any indication, this will drive still more people out of the party system.
At some point, independent voters could claim a plurality (their numbers are already closing in on the Republicans). And that might lead to changes that remove parties from their official role in our politics and government.
Two recent reforms approved by voters moved California in that direction. The first took the job of redrawing political boundaries away from the Legislature and gave it to an independent commission. That change gave us new districts that more closely follow geography and local government boundaries rather than reflecting the needs of incumbent lawmakers or their parties.
The second reform replaced partisan primaries with an open primary that allows voters to choose any candidate regardless of party. The top two finishers move on to a run-off in November.
This forces candidates to pay attention to voters across the political spectrum in the primaries, when they used to run only to the far right or the far left to appeal to those most likely to vote in the party preference contests. In districts that are overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican, it is possible for the top two finishers in the primary to be from the same party.
This year, there are 28 such contests for the Legislature and Congress. In some of those races, two Democrats will be campaigning for independent and Republican votes. And the opposite will happen with Republicans in heavily Republican districts looking for Democrats’ votes.
This ought to result in less dogmatic, more pragmatic people getting elected to the Legislature. Perhaps it will be only a handful, but even that could be the start of a new bridge across the gulf that separates the parties, a small reflection of California’s large but underappreciated political center.
The next logical step would be to make state government, like local government, officially nonpartisan. The parties would still exist, but they would be private associations only, like the Sierra Club or the Chamber of Commerce. They could endorse candidates and campaign for them but they would have no official role in the process.
There is no guarantee that a nonpartisan state government would be better than the one we have today. But California’s experience with local government suggests that it would be. And it is hard to believe it could get much worse.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org