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Connor: Riding the camel of America’s partisan politics

October 11, 2010

Political scientist George Connor discusses the political landscape of the United States. Photo by Emily Steele

By Karol Slowikowski
University of Illinois-Chicago

ST. LOUIS – Conventional wisdom says that the American electorate is like a one-humped camel, but George Connor thinks it’s more like a two-humped dromedarius.

Connor, chair of  Missouri State University’s  political science department, spoke to the Midwestern Press Institute’s “Election Night and Beyond” workshop Saturday, Oct. 9. Connor likened the statistical curve of American voting tendencies to that of the humps of a camel. Connor’s study of voting patterns challenged the popular notion of a centrist bell curve, modifying it to that of “Dromedarius Leftius” and “Dromedarius Rightius” political curves. He found that Americans do not tend to complete liberal, conservative, or to centrist thinking, rather they vote for candidates who fit between center and extremity.

As an example, Connor cited certain districts in Missouri. “I don’t care who the Democrats nominate, the Democrats could nominate Charlton Heston, and he would still lose,” he said.

Connor used that example to criticize inflexible and shortsighted decisions that some overly partisan voters tend to make.

“When you look at leftists and rightists, it does matter where you are and which state you’re in,”  Connor said. People tend to vote according to the conventions they are exposed to.

Using an example from his past, Connor mentioned the politics surrounding Chicago and its suburbs.

“I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago,” Connor said. “Everybody moved out this far, and there was a clear demarcation politically between the city of Chicago and the suburbs, and the middle ground started to fill in.” He explained that there is a difference in political thinking in the city versus the far West suburbs, and that the voters’ tendencies to act accordingly to party ideology started to spread from these theoretical epicenters.

It would be a mistake to believe that political leanings never change. Connor used Igor’s hump from Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein to show that humps can occasionally switch sides.

”I say for the most part that it doesn’t change, and that’s true, but it can. I don’t want to say that it’s never going to change,” Connor said. “So how do we move from leftius to rightius and vice versa?” A number of factors that can change the opinions of residents in congressional districts, states, and even the entire country.

One example that Connor used involves the state of Kansas. ”Does the district change? The answer is yes. Does the state change? The answer is yes. What’s the matter with Kansas? Kansas used to be a pretty progressive state and now it’s pretty conservative,” Connor said. Connor said socioeconomic divides impact the migration of political thought.

Connor said this migration “was almost always driven by an underlying socioeconomic divide. What separates Democrats from Republicans is still a basic socioeconomic class-based party system, and that’s what we have. When you think about districts and the movement in migration within districts and away from districts it almost always has a socioeconomic element.”

When St. Louis’ Chrysler plant was closed, laid-off workers were forced to seek jobs elsewhere, or conversely were forced to stay put due to financial reasons. These migration patterns effected voting patterns.

Another way that politics can change is through redistricting. “If you want to change a district, redistricting is going to happen. Illinois is going to lose a congressional seat, Missouri is going to lose a congressional seat; that means the state legislature, whether it’s controlled by Democrats or Republicans or whowever, is going to have the ability to affect a congressional district,” Connor said. Change is inevitable in a political climate mainly controlled by two parties.

The speed at which change occurs is accelerating. This can be seen through polling data that shows President Obama’s job approval numbers dipping close to those of former President Bush during his term. Regarding the recent unpopularity of President Obama, Connor said, “The pendulum of the American people swinging to the left, swinging to the right, something that used to take generations is now taking about two years.” Americans are in a tumultuous time of political philosophy.

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