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Press Release


Third Way Releases Groundbreaking Report: The Politics of Polarization

New Study of Electorate Updates Seminal Work by Galston and Kamarck

Washington — Third Way today released a new study by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck entitled The Politics of Polarization , which examines the recent past, the present, and the foreseeable future of modern-day electoral politics. This paper follows the authors’ enormously influential 1989 study, The Politics of Evasion, which helped shape Bill Clinton’s approach to politics and governance.

Like their earlier work, the new study exposes several pervasive myths that are allowing Democrats to evade difficult truths about the electorate. The Politics of Polarization also reveals how Democrats have lost ground among key groups of voters, including married women and Catholics. And it uncovers a new phenomenon the authors call “the great sorting-out,” which explains how the extraordinary new levels of partisanship have polarized the electorate to the detriment of Democrats.

After their earlier study, which was released by the Democratic Leadership Council, helped propel Clinton to the presidency, Galston, now the Saul Stern Professor of Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland and Director of its Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, and Kamarck, now a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, served together in the Clinton White House.

“Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck helped define an entire era of American politics and exploded some of the myths that Democrats harbored in the late 1980s,” said Third Way President Jonathan Cowan . “We are delighted to be releasing this fascinating new portrait of the political landscape, and we are confident that this study will have a significant impact on the politics of our time.”

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), a founding co-chair of Third Way and chair of the group’s Middle Class Project, said in a statement: “This report does a brilliant job of deciphering electoral trends over the last few national elections, while suggestinghow Democrats can position themselves to win again. There’s a leadership vacuum in this country that Democrats can fill by distinguishing ourselves from Republicans and offering a bold, positive vision of the future. The Politics of Polarization is a work of great importance, and I will be sending it to all of my Democratic colleagues in the Senate and urging them to consider it carefully.”

The Politics of Polarization first looks back at the Clinton legacy and notes how his incumbency shaped voter opinion of Democrats in the areas of economics, where he restored Democratic credibility; national security, where he had few opportunities to change voter perceptions; and values, where he left a mixed legacy, with gains for Democrats in the areas of race-based values but substantial erosion in religion-based values.

The paper identifies four myths to which Democrats have fallen prey:

The report also unearths a dominant political trend the authors tab as “the great sorting-out” and demonstrates that the current climate of polarization has tilted the national playing field against Democrats. Over the past thirty years, the ideological segmentation of the electorate has barely budged, but the authors found that ideology is a far greater predictor of voting behavior than in years past. For Democrats, the ramifications of the great sorting-out are mostly negative as there are three conservatives for every two liberals. Thus, compared to a generation ago, blue states are bluer, red states redder, and swing states fewer. Citing one example, the authors note that Jimmy Carter captured 72% of the liberal vote and won, while John Kerry captured 85% of the liberal vote and lost.

The Politics of Polarization concludes by urging Democrats to confront the current myths of the party, stop hiding behind domestic policy and honestly confront national security, show tolerance and common sense on hot-button social issues, develop new economic policies that embrace global competition while establishing a modernized social safety net, and pay more attention to the very personal qualities of integrity and character that often win or lose elections.

“Sixteen years ago, we wrote The Politics of Evasion after a Massachusetts Democrat lost a race many thought he should have won to a Texas Republican of questionable political skills,” said Kamarck. “Besides the obvious parallels, it was time for a deep analysis of the electorate relying on real data, not pre-conceived assumptions.”

“Once the myths that cloud the minds of Democrats have been dispelled, they can begin to confront the real challenges they face in foreign policy and national defense, culture, and the economy, and also in their understanding of how successful candidates must present themselves to the American people,” said Galston.

“This study should serve as a wake-up call to progressives,” Cowan said. “The facts are clear and the news is sobering. But as we saw in 1989, sometimes facing facts can move people to action.”

Contact: Matt Bennett (202) 775-3768 x212

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