Q&A: America's Political Divide

Why does every election leave the country holding its collective breath? Why have campaigns become more bitter, even with increasing numbers of voters who identify with neither party? According to political scientists Earl Black and Merle Black in their new book, "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics" (Simon & Schuster), neither Democrats nor Republicans, neither conservatives nor liberals represent governing majorities in the United States. The parties, they write, "are locked in a power struggle in which victory or defeat is possible in every round of elections for every national institution." NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau spoke with Merle Black, professor of politics and government at Emory University (and the twin brother of Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University), about his findings. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You paint a picture of an America that is almost hopelessly polarized. How did the country end up in this impasse?
Merle Black: The parties have become more ideologically homogenous than ever before. The Democrats are more liberal than in the past. The Republicans are more conservative than they've ever been before. Each party has over time carved out regional strongholds, which means they have to appeal to voters in those strongholds, rather than at a national level. The parties can survive in their bases because they promote candidates who reflect the beliefs and priorities of the voters in a regional stronghold.

This goes back to the realignment of white conservatives during the Reagan presidency.
Historically, those voters were aligned with the conservative wing of the Democrats. But the realignment of these voters in the South produced a much more conservative Republican Party, [that] not only moved Republicans to the right, but also made it a more religiously conservative party. Today only 24 percent of Southern whites call themselves Democrats. When the Democrats lost what had been their historically conservative wing, the party moved to the left.

And moderates seem to be left out of the picture. You write about elections becoming "continuous battles between ideologically driven partisans—who represent minorities of the entire electorate."
The groups that become very strong within a particular party can leverage the party. You don't need to own 50 percent of the stock in a company to have an enormous impact under our winner-take-all rules, where there is no proportional representation. Unless that middle group [comprised of] moderate voters from the Democratic and Republican parties can win an election, it gets nothing.

Isn't your book just another way of talking about Red States and Blue States?
We don't talk about those concepts or use that language in the book. What we see is that partisan strongholds are related to race and ethnicity of voters but also rooted to religious cultures. Where you have large numbers of conservative Protestants, you generally see a Republican stronghold.

With conservative Christian voters dominating in the South and more secular liberal voters dominating in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast?
That's right. There are of course variations within the regions, but what is striking is how homogeneous the regions tend to be.

Are there any areas of the country that are still up for grabs?
We still see a lot of that in the Midwest. That's the one region where the strength of Democrats and Republicans has gone back and forth. In other regions, what we see from 2006 is that the Democrats got bigger majorities in their strongholds, the Northeast and the Pacific Coast, than ever before. The Republicans continue to be strong in the South, but their majorities were not as large as the Democrats majorities in their respective strongholds.

What does this suggest for the 2008 presidential election?
All the Democrats need to do is hold the states they did last time and win Ohio. The extremely close results of 2006 suggest that Ohio is up for grabs.

So the new mantra is Ohio, Ohio, Ohio instead of Florida, Florida, Florida?
That's right [laughs]. But there are also other states where Democrats have additional opportunities, most notably in the West—Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. There's a Western culture where the Democrats have had considerable support in part from the New Deal on. These are rapidly growing states with changing populations. The voters are slightly less conservative than they've been in the past, and there is a lot more participation by what we call the "new minorities," primarily Latinos. It's very interesting that Democrats will hold their nominating convention in Colorado. They are clearly trying to challenge the Republicans stronghold on the Western states. That would be especially true if Bill Richardson were to be the vice presidential nominee.

Because he's Hispanic and the governor of New Mexico?

And who has crossover appeal on the Republican side?
If Giuliani could survive the Republican primary process, he'd put several states in the Northeast, the Democrats' most reliable stronghold, into play. And possibly McCain, although I should say the McCain of 2000 would have some appeal for voters not aligned with a particular party.

And Hillary?
She looks more like a base candidate who'd be strong in Democratic regions, but it's unclear how she would advance in Republican regions. With Hillary from New York and Obama from Illinois, both Democratic strongholds, either would have to find a way to appeal to voters in a Republican stronghold.

In the book, you suggest that "every institution is up for grabs, in every election." It sounds like good news for political consultants, but what does it mean for everyone else?
[Laughs.] We are just trying to provide a realistic picture of American politics. It makes it very, very hard to govern the United States—and very hard to be president. The party in the minority is only one or two issues from becoming majority. That gives them no incentive to compromise. And the majority party is always looking over their shoulders.