The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics

by Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams

Oklahoma, 249pp., $39.95

It’s been said of political scientist Morris Fiorina that when the Stanford faculty meets, he’s the furthest to the right politically; but when the fellows of Stanford’s Hoover Institution gather, he’s the furthest to the left. Or as he might say, based on the evidence he and Samuel J. Abrams muster in Disconnect, he’s where most of the American people are.

I met Fiorina last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We were on a three-member panel to discuss the Tea Party movement. As you might expect, he was to the right of E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and to the left of me. He held the moderate ground quite well. And I talked to him again last December at Hoover, much to my benefit.

But back to Disconnect. The book’s theory is simple: “In America today there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it purports to represent,” Fiorina writes. While the political class tends to divide sharply between liberals and conservatives, the public is far more centrist in its political orientation. So guess who loses in this state of affairs? The moderate majority, especially in elections when it’s often forced to choose “between relatively extreme candidates” put forth by the political class.

Not surprisingly, Fiorina is unhappy with this situation: “I have been thinking about the declining electoral status of the political center for almost two decades. . . . My belief is that the political process today not only is less representative and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at minimum no better.”

Fiorina makes a strong case for his thesis, though the phenomenon he describes may not be entirely new. Unlike today, the parties used to overlap on issues. There were plenty of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans well into the 1980s, even the early '90s. But rather than partisan, the divide in those days was ideological. And the political class was, as often as not, unrepresentative of a more moderate electorate.

But don’t let me steer you away from Disconnect. It has everything I like in a book on politics. Its author is an academic, but his prose, while not quite journalistic, is clear and readable. Its thesis is buttressed by an impressive array of evidence. And the book is relatively short, a mere 249 pages including appendix and index. This is important. It’s a book you’ll finish. Even if you don’t buy into its argument fully, you’re likely to come away with an altered view of parties and elections. I did.

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