Party Polarization: Congress, Why So Extreme?

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You’re sitting at a dinner table with the in-laws, and they’re liberal as the day is long. Or, you’re golfing with that old friend from college, the one who voted for George W. Bush in 2000. There’s a reason talking politics at the table is a big no-no if you want to continue sharing a bed with your significant other, and there’s a reason you don’t distract someone from their backstroke to discuss policy or the latest Supreme Court ruling.

Politics are divisive. They elicit an often frustrated and emotional reaction, and especially when discussed among those of like opinion who reinforce our own opinions, we tend to only polarize further. Polarization and division are just what our government as a whole is seeing at its legislative dinner party up on the hill. Using the Common Space DW-nominate scoring system, FiveThirtyEight showed that the houses of Congress “are the most divided they’ve been in our lifetimes.”

How the system determines this is by giving each member of the House and Senate a score from negative one to positive one, positive being conservative and negative being liberal. From there, it compares the total score of both houses of the legislature. At present, the score difference is 0.47, the only score, apart from 2013, to ever go above 0.4. Explanations for this are plentiful and have numerous implications.

One possible explanation is that stressful political and economic conditions have been steadily increasing differences of opinion as pressure polarizes the parties. The greater the need for solutions and the higher the stakes, the greater the disagreement on what those solutions should be. A chronically dissatisfied public suffering from a weak job market and low national morale makes an already uncertain job that much more on the line.

FiveThirtyEight reports that this is only the seventh time the U.S. has had a split Congress since World War I, and that the House leans slightly farther to the right (0.27) than the Senate does to the left (-0.20). However, at both ends, the median lawmaker is polarized, with the median House member the fourth most conservative since WWI, and the median senator shown to be the fourth most liberal.

Another explanation for this polarization is offered by political scientist Danielle Thomsen in his study Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress. If Thomsen’s report is correct, being moderate tends to discourage politicians from running for Congress, meaning that this polarization is self perpetuating. As voters we elect our representatives into office, but we can only vote for the options given, and it would appear even our options are polarizing.

According to the study, “replacement processes are the primary driver behind the rise in polarization … and asymmetric polarization … but we know little about why these replacements are more extreme tan their predecessors,” a process called “leapfrog representation,” in which an extreme representative is replaced by another extreme representative. Thomsen claims that “Party Fit” or “ideological conformity with the party’s ideological reputation” has a major impact on a politician’s decision to run or not to run for Congress.

A study of political polarization from Duke University backed up both FiveThirtyEight and Thomsen’s findings. According to Duke Today, the authors of Portrait of Political Part Polarization, professors James Moody and Peter Mucha, said, “We have not seen the current level of partisanship since the early 1900s.”

Their study looks at the voting patterns of each senator and showed that over time, both parties have shown growing partisanship in their voting, and a shrinking number of lawmakers are voting independent of their parties. “In the current era, middle positions seem fragile and even longtime middle residents follow party lines … or lose their seats,” said Mucha and Moody.

Markus Prior of the Princeton University Department of Politics published a study in 2013 examining this polarizing trend and looking at what role, if any, the media has on American political extremes. He was looking specifically at “firebrands like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Keith Olbermann.” What Prior eventually concluded was that the study had measurement problems and that it’s possible that “Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to a small, but highly involved and influential, segment of the population.”

He also said there is “evidence that Congress and some newer media outlets add more partisan messages to the continuing supply of mostly centrist news produced by many large outlets.” While his study ultimately finds that many conclusions are difficult to support due to a lack of obtainable data, there are interesting inferences that can be speculated on.

The fact that an increasing number of media and congressional releases are partisan could demonstrate a symptom rather than a cause of partisanship. Greater polarization in Congress and in politically active members of the media is reasonably going to affect the production of material. On the other hand, the increase in partisanship in “newer” media could be explainable by demand. Older, more cemented news and media sources have a historic dedication to a degree of objectivity, while newer media often must cater to an audience more carefully to survive in a competitive media market, and the audience in question may respond better to more inflammatory or uniquely controversial output.

This is a concept the study somewhat addresses in its discussion of “selective exposure,” a concept in which people choose media that simply reiterates their own beliefs and opinions. Prior, for his part, found insufficient evidence that selective exposure fully explains “media impact,” again a problem of “measurement problems.” Prior’s study finds that “there are also good theoretical reasons to expect that blatantly partisan messages will leave public opinion mostly unchanged — because citizens ignore them, resist them, or take them for granted.”

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