Polarization is not driven by the people

The persistent gridlock in Congress on a wide-range of pressing problems, cries out for explanation. A common answer is that members of Congress are simply reflecting their own constituents in a country deeply divided between “red” and “blue” districts, polarized on the issues that Congress is failing to face. This seems intuitively valid given that we are supposed to be a democracy.

But empirical data tell a very different story. The constituencies that members of Congress are supposed to represent are actually quite similar.

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A recent study by Voice of the People and the Program for Public Consultation, affiliated with the University of Maryland, sought to find out how often most people in red districts (represented by a Republican) disagreed with those in blue districts (represented by a Democrat) on questions about what the government should do. The answer was: not very often. 

The study analyzed 388 poll questions that asked what the government should do in regard to a wide range of policy issues, including hot button issues like healthcare, immigration and abortion. These came from numerous sources including the National Election Studies, Pew, major media outlets, and others. Respondents were divided based on whether they lived in blue or red districts. In a small minority of cases data was only available to allow the division into red or blue states.

If the polarization in Congress is driven by polarization between the constituencies they represent you would expect the majorities or pluralities in red and blue districts and states to be at odds with each other quite often. But the number of cases in which this was the case was just 14 out of the 388 questions—less than 4 percent of the time.

For an overwhelming 69 percent of survey questions there were no statistically significant differences in the responses. In most of the rest of the cases, there were differences in the size of the majorities, but they still came out on the same side of the issue. 

The few cases for which there was a red-blue polarization were in response to topics you would expect—primarily homosexuality, abortion, and gun control. But even on these issues there were other questions in which such differences were not found.

But wait, haven’t there been some recent studies showing marked polarization between Republicans and Democrats?

Pew recently released a study comparing Republicans and Democrats and found a trend toward greater polarization on broad ideological questions. Social scientists for some decades have bewailed the fact that citizens seemed fairly mixed up about what they were supposed to think. So the big news was that for the first time in two decades of polling on these questions, more than half of Republicans were taking clearly conservative position and Democrats clearly liberal ones. This is all part of the process of that has been called “the big sort.”

So how big of an ideological difference are we talking about here? The standard that Pew used was that, in response to 10 questions, if Republicans took the conservative position for three more questions than they took the liberal position, they qualified as at least mostly conservative. How many Republicans crossed this threshold? A relatively modest 53 percent. Democrats who met this standard on the liberal side were a similarly modest 56 percent.

And even if this sorting is going on in relation to broad ideological questions it does not mean that there is all that much polarization on questions that ask more specifically what the government should do.

The Pew study found substantial partisan convergence on policy questions, even on abortion and gun control. When they presented a broad question on these issues majorities of Republicans and Democrats did diverge. But when they followed up with a question that asked for a more specific policy recommendation, majorities on both sides moved toward more moderate positions that were barely distinguishable.  The numbers holding fast to the clearly polarized positions were small minorities—tails on a fairly normal curve.

So what then is driving the polarization? If you ask the American people, they do not think they are the problem, but rather competing special interests that are pouring ever-growing amounts of money into the political process and deploying ballooning numbers of lobbyists. They see members of Congress raising increasing amounts of money and making commitments that make them more inflexible in their positions. Since many of these influence-buying interests are at odds with each other, Americans do not find it all that mysterious how Congress ends up in gridlock.

Most Americans reject the idea this is a natural feature of the democratic process. They believe that if members of Congress were to listen more closely to the people they are supposed to represent, they would be more apt to find common ground.

Research says they are right.

Kull is president of Voice Of the People, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that uses innovative methods and technology to give the American people a more effective voice in the policymaking process.

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