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UB professor’s book on political polarization recognized by American Library Association

At its core, the book explains how American politics arrived at its current state and why political conflict in our nation has solidified into its standoff of “us versus them."

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 1, 2017

Choice reviewers called the book "…a well-researched, highly provocative volume on American Political polarization which challenges a great deal of conventional wisdom on the subject."

UB political scientist James Campbell has received a prestigious Choice award from the American Library Association (ALA) for his book “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.”

The book was chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title along with fewer than 500 others from the roughly 7000 works reviewed in 2016 by Choice, part of the ALA’s Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL).

Each January, Choice publishes a list of noteworthy books it reviewed during the previous calendar year. In making their selections, ACRL editors consider many factors including the work’s overall excellence in presentation and scholarship importance relative to other literature in the field; distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form; originality; value to undergraduate students; and the importance in building undergraduate library collections.

Choice reviewers called the book written by Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science, “…a well-researched, highly provocative volume on American Political polarization which challenges a great deal of conventional wisdom on the subject.”

Choice reviews are held in high regard by libraries, according to Laura Taddeo, head of arts, humanities and social sciences in the UB Libraries.

“Academic librarians rely heavily on Choice to identify the most important books published in a specific discipline,” says Taddeo. “A book that receives an ‘outstanding’ review is considered an essential addition to the UB Libraries’ core collection.”

“Polarized” is as accessible as it is scholarly, dealing with important theoretical issues of concern but also addressing questions and interests of a general audience.

“I am delighted that my work has been so prominently recognized and pleased that this awareness will bring greater attention and a larger readership to my book,” says Campbell. “This award will help a great deal to get the book in front of both kinds of readers.”

At its core, “Polarized” explains how American politics arrived at its current state and why political conflict in our nation has solidified into its standoff of “us versus them.”

“Polarization is not, as often argued, a myth or a condition imposed by gerrymandering, political media or campaign contributors, activists, or partisan presidents,” says Campbell. “Polarization is the democratic representation of real political differences in our society and we have to learn how to live with those differences and to govern without unduly inflaming those differences.”

Polarization is quite real, according to Campbell, who says the divide began to grow in the late 1960s and has grown somewhat greater since then. A bare majority of Americans were ideological in the early 1970s, but moderates are now outnumbered by the combined numbers of conservatives and liberals. The change is significant, but not dramatic.

“What makes it appear so different is that the political parties once muted political differences in the public, but now they reflect and accentuate those differences,” says Campbell.

Polarization, as Campbell explains, has been a bottom-up process that started with the public and moved later to the parties.

“The public was highly polarized before the political parties and their leaders became so divided. The polarization of the political parties resulted from the parties realigning and better representing a highly polarized electorate. Contrary to some views, both parties have contributed about equally to their polarization,” he says. “Polarization is a natural state of party competition since winning the crucial support of political centrists also requires that parties represent the views of those in their ideological base well enough that they will turn out to vote.” 

Campbell says he has a few projects in mind as a follow-up to the book, but for now he’s still busy creating awareness. The book has even assumed a life off the page. Campbell will discuss “Polarized” in late April at Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and he’s also organizing a panel discussion at UB titled “Dealing with Polarization.” The event, supported by a grant from the Institute for Humane Studies, is tentatively scheduled for mid-April.

“For the UB panel, we hope to address issues about how Americans can live and interact in a civil way in everyday life; how polarization can be addressed in media and in our educational institutions; and how the nation can be effectively governed in our political climate,” says Campbell.