Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Partisan Polarization in Congress: Causes, Consequences, Solutions?

In your car or in your government, gridlock is frustrating. Current election politics and high-stakes Capitol Hill negotiations make ideological gridlock a front-and-center topic.  By many accounts, much of the gridlock in Washington today is caused by the distribution of ideologues in the legislature. Today I’d like to address partisan polarization on Capitol Hill.  Specifically, I’ll address three questions:

1.      Is Congress polarized?
2.      What are the consequences of polarization?
3.      How did it get that way?

Answering these questions in turn will lead me to offer some suggestions and possible solutions to this dilemma.

First, there is no question that Congress has become more ideologically polarized in recent years. An across-time comparison of roll call votes, by party and chamber, shows that the increasing rate of polarization has been multiplicative in recent years, and that the parties are currently more polarized than they’ve ever been since we first measured it. We can measure polarization in roll call votes, number of ideological moderates, distance between the parties, percentage of party loyalists, or general gap between the parties—no matter how you cut it, Congress has been polarizing and has reached a pinnacle of polarization.

Second, does it matter?  What are the consequences of a polarized Congress?  The answers here are somewhat mixed. In terms of legislative productivity, recent (polarized) Congresses have maintained a historical pace of creating and passing legislation. There are no big anomalies here.  The 110th Congress was one of the most polarized in history, but the Affordable Care Act, a highly polarizing bill, was passed and signed into law despite major disagreements over its character and content.

Clearly, one of the consequences of polarization is public scorn for Congress.  The job approval ratings for congress are abysmally low. Today’s congress is less popular than Nixon during Watergate, Banks during the banking crisis, BP during the oil spill, and Hugo Chavez. It’s not entirely clear how much this matters (note that more than 90% of Congress is about to get reelected), it does not seem like a healthy characteristic of democracy.

If we think that polarization is problematic—and there are lots of good reasons to think so, we should put polarization into historical context.

Third, how did Congress get so polarized? At the outset it’s worthwhile to note that just because Congress is polarized doesn’t mean America is.  These are separate issues. Conversations on the source of polarization in Congress frequently turn into conversations about legislative redistricting. Redistricting does affect polarization in Congress, but not in the way that most people assume it does. 

Some assume that the politicization of the redistricting process at the state level has caused districts to get gerrymandered into homogenous ideological echo chambers, which in turn causes Congress to get filled with these guys.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  There is a variety of evidence showing that legislative gerrymandering does not contribute to incumbency advantage (for example here and here), but by far the simplest and most compelling argument is to look at the United States Senate.  There is no redistricting that happens in the Senate, yet it displays the same sort of ideological polarization that we see in the House.

So we need another mousetrap on polarization.  Congress is polarized now for two main reasons: 1.) natural demographic uniformity in districts, and 2.) changes in the rules for nominating candidates and drawing district lines.

On the first point, sociologists have demonstrated that people are homophilous.  That is, we tend to flock to those who are like us in some way.  And, birds of the same feather can more easily flock together in the modern day where it has become relatively cheap and easy to move around the country.  As the cost of moving declines, the tendency toward localized homophily, or homogeneity, increases.

Secondly, in 1964 we changed the way congressional district lines are drawn.  It used to be the case that district lines followed other political boundaries, like counties.  But since the mid-60s congressional district boundaries have followed their own strange brew and tend to be relatively disconnected from other political boundaries. This change fragmented local party organizations and made them less able to coordinate the grooming of challengers.  Since local party organizations tend to be organized by county, or other municipal boundaries, the overlap and break-up of these boundaries made it more difficult for local organizations to be involved with candidate recruitment.

Moreover, there has been a paradigm shift in the way campaigns are organized in this country that occurred throughout the 20th century.  Think back to the machine politics era of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. These were the days of party bosses and smoke filled rooms. Of course, the Progressive movement and its reforms in the 1920s put an end to the corrupt practices that this system bred, but it turns out that that party cartel system had some advantages.

The party bosses of yore were particularly good at recruiting high quality challengers to run against incumbents. The reasoning goes that when party organizations were stronger, a party acted more like a team, where the team valued strong individual players to help contribute to a collective outcome. These stronger party teams could recruit higher quality challengers by offering some insurance against loss—after all, the parties did control most of the jobs and candidate entry decisions, so they had a lot to offer. Using these tools, parties of old recruited high quality challengers, and incumbents ran for reelection less often, and when they did run the won less often, compared to today.

There is an obvious trade-off here. It is well articulated by Carson, et al, here.  Cartel-like parties that controlled candidate selection were able to make general election contests more competitive, but at the cost of corruption.  The unseemly activities of the all-controlling bosses were too authoritarian and showed too much favoritism to remain parts of a lasting democracy.

Today, we don’t have such strong party bosses, our district lines are more distinct from local political boundaries, and the party-cartel-like corruption is mostly absent in our politics. Candidates today are free to distance themselves from their party and its platform and many don’t even use a party ID in their campaign pitches.  The modern party organizations encourage this behavior, because to maintain (or obtain) a majority of seats, they’ll take a winner however they can get it—even if it means nearly disavowing the party brand.

The increased focus on candidate independence has contributed to partisan polarization in Congress. Alleviating this consequence, however, does not need to come with the price tag of fat cat corruption of the early 1900s. Rather, what we can learn from that era is that increased competition in elections comes from recruiting high quality candidates.

What we need then, is a source of viable, high quality candidates for national office, who can be financed, groomed, and supported such that they have a chance of winning. Where might we find such candidates, and how do we convince them to run en masse?

One possibility is women.

Research shows that women are less likely to see themselves as viable candidates for office than men. Gender stereotypes keep women out of contests and create greater hurdles for those who enter. We also know, however, that since female candidates face greater hurdles to get there, they frequently out-perform male legislators on measures of specialization and workload.

If you prefer a more institutional approach to this problem, perhaps congress has already created one.  In a forthcoming book, Nils Ringe and I argue that the system of legislative member organizations (caucuses) in Congress has proliferated in recent years.  We argue that the primary purpose of these groups is to help legislators form relationships and share information, especially across partisan divides. In future work, we will explore the relationship between caucuses in Congress and partisan polarization and the possibility that Congress uses these caucuses to help overcome some of what ails them.

While there is generally no love lost on the political era of the brandy soaked cigar, perhaps we need modern institutional changes that will help us strengthen party organizations and caucuses, and candidate recruitment to help us return to an era with more competitive congressional elections. Term-limits are both counterproductive and unconstitutional; we can’t artificially create candidate competition. But if we can get creative about recruiting more candidates and giving party organizations the incentives and tools they need to support them, we can likely begin to turn the tide on the hyper-polarization we see in Congress today.


  1. If we think that polarization is problematic—and there are lots of good reasons to think so, we should put polarization into historical context.

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  2. Today I’d like to address partisan polarization on Capitol Hill.

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