Catching Up

My earlier post on the continued high levels of polarization in Congress generated a few comments to which I thought I might respond.

First, both the left and right took some umbrage at how I presented the data. R Weeks protests that

Using the link to read the entire article, I find the information presented fails to support the headline used. It is apparent increased polarization is due to the continued drift right by Republican members of congress…Perhaps the headline should read “Republican Polarization?”

while Liberty responds that

I always have to smile when I hear that Republicans must moderate their positions and show “restraint” in order for everyone to get along. And if one is to believe this article, then Democrats are considered to moderates and reasonable and exhibit a non -polarizing effect in Congress. Ya, right. You only have to look at the number of Republicans representing the Northeast in the U.S. House of Representatives, ZERO, to observe an example of polarization. Good Grief!

It is generally a good sign when you offend both sides, because it means that you’ve also treated both fairly. But let me make a few additional points.

  • R Weeks is correct in that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that contemporary polarization is a reflection of the increasing conservatism of the Republican party. The position of the Democratic party has been relatively stable, pulled to the left only because its southern wing is now heavily African-American rather than white conservative. This is consistent with almost all of the political science research on the topic. In assessing blame for polarization, however, what we would really like to know is how the parties shifted relative to voters rather than to each other. If, for example, the electorate has moved sharply to the right over the past 30 years, the Democrats might be blamed for not going along. But comparing the conservatism of Congress with the electorate is a very methodologically-tricky thing to do, and there is much less consensus on this question. My personal view is that the electorate moved modestly to the right over the last generation (at least until the last 3-4 years) but not nearly as much as the Republican party did. So I do assign the Republicans a very large share, but not all, of the blame.
  • Conservatives and libertarians should not be too upset when they are blamed for polarization. After all, many on the right take great pride in transforming the Republican party into a conservative party. Of course that transformation led to polarization, and many conservatives think that is a good thing.

Second, King Politics adds the following to my analysis:

the breathless reporting by the MSM usually neglects to include how redistricting (generically) makes for less competitive general elections where the primary winner has to run to the wing of his/her party and not to the middle.

I’m going to dissent here. The MSM actually greatly exagerates the effects of redistricting. Keith, Howard, and I have the following paper under review:

Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?


Both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link. First, we show that congressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences. Second, we conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various “neutral” districting procedures. We find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations. We do find that gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House; however, this increase is not an important source of polarization.

Here’s a copy gerrymander38.pdf.