The political wrangling in the U.S. this week over the extension of the payroll-tax holiday illustrates once again the new era of hyperpolarization. The gap between the two parties is wide, and few policy makers stand in the middle. The traditional model of centrist legislating is broken.
Rather than catch up with this reality, most Washington commentators still yearn for the good old days of bipartisan legislation driven by moderates. They believe that all we need to get there is stronger national leadership. However, new evidence from state legislatures shows that polarization is not just an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon.
In the political science literature on polarization in Congress, the big debate is about its cause (with widespread agreement that gerrymandering is only a bit player). Has polarization been driven by changes in the population or by an increasing gap between the policy-making elite and the public? This matters because, if the problem is simply with freelancing national policy makers, fixing it should be straightforward: Voters could simply elect different policy makers. If the cause is a more polarized population, though, the solutions are less clear and the problem is likely to be with us for a long time.
The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the blame-the-elites view is the way legislators who share the same constituents can have radically different points of view on policy. In the 112th Congress, for example, 17 states are represented by senators of different parties. The senators from mixed-party states represent the same people, yet often represent them in substantially different ways. This implies that legislators have the leeway to behave in a highly partisan manner that could be out of line with their constituents’ views.
Population Sorts Itself
However, if legislators act more radically than their voters think they should, then those voters should express dissatisfaction. That has not happened, as Gary Jacobsen, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has shown. At the same time, the American population is sorting itself increasingly into Republican and Democratic neighborhoods, and this, along with the segmentation of print, online and broadcast media, reinforces polarization. This dynamic suggests that an important cause of polarization in Congress is polarization among the American people.
New studies of state legislatures provide another perspective on the issue. As Nathaniel Birkhead, a graduate student in political science at Indiana University, has written, “If polarization is driven primarily by forces within the Beltway, we should expect to see that the trend of polarization in Congress differs from polarization trends elsewhere.”
So what’s been happening to state legislatures? From 1996 to 2008, most states experienced striking increases in state-level polarization, according to data assembled by the political scientists Boris Shor of the University of Chicago and Nolan McCarty of Princeton. In fact, over that period, most state legislatures polarized even more rapidly than Congress did.
State experiences varied, to be sure. The most dramatic increases in polarization happened in Arizona, Colorado and California. Some states experienced no change in polarization to speak of. And, in a small minority of states, legislatures depolarized. New Hampshire’s did so most significantly.
But most legislatures became more polarized, and this evidence tends to support the idea that Congress’s problem is not unique. Shor and McCarty suggest that perhaps the blame-the-elites view merely needs to be augmented with a state-level component -- that legislatures grew more polarized because state politicians, like those in Congress, have developed views that are not in line with those of their constituents.
But as I wrote in an earlier column, there is evidence that the population itself is polarizing. In particular, increased residential sorting by income (the decline of mixed-income neighborhoods) correlates with increased residential sorting by political party -- which in turn is linked to increased polarization among voters.
Recent research explores how voters migrated from 2004 to 2008. Political scientists Wendy Cho of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, James Gimpel of the University of Maryland and Iris Hui of the University of California, Los Angeles, constructed a new database linking voting registration with other variables and found that, even after adjusting for age, income and other personal variables, political considerations appeared to influence people’s migration patterns. In particular, they found that “Republican migrants show a clear preference for moving to areas that are even more Republican in all states except New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” The evidence about Democratic migrants was more mixed.
Ultimately, the increasing polarization in American politics probably stems from both causes -- our representatives in Congress have more extreme views, and we the people also have more divided views. I suspect, however, that as we gather more evidence, most of it will point toward increased polarization in the population itself.
To see why all of this matters, imagine the world a year from today. After 12 more months of high unemployment and much drama surrounding the European sovereign-debt and banking crisis, a transition team in Washington will be preparing for a new administration. Regardless of whether the winner is President Barack Obama or the Republican challenger, he will undoubtedly face a sharply divided Congress and will lack at least one part of the three things needed for effective legislating in the partisan era: the White House, 60 votes in the Senate and the majority in the House of Representatives.
In addition, he will face three fiscal policy challenges: The Bush tax cuts will be expiring, the budget cuts triggered by the failure of the supercommittee will be taking effect, and the government will again be bumping up against the debt limit. Want to see hyperpolarization in high definition? Just wait.
(Peter Orszag is vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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