Political polarization is worse than ever.

You knew that already, of course, but the hard data really backs it up.


Political polarization and gridlock. It’s worse that ever, or at least it seems that way. In fact, it is worse than it has been for 65 years. That’s the conclusion of a recent study by researchers who looked at the history of political polarization in the US since 1949, as judged by congressional voting records. The study found that cooperation between members of different parties is now lacking more than ever before. Things were actually a lot better back in the Nixon era, even during the most divisive days of the Vietnam War and Watergate, when a President and Vice President were forced to resign, and even in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The study is by Clio Andris and colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute. From the abstract:

It is widely believed among politicians and the public that partisanship in the U.S. Congress is at an historic high, culminating in the government shutdown of fall 2013. Here, we examine the history of non- cooperation in the U.S. Congress using data from roll call votes in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1949–2012. For each year, we focus on the number of cooperating pairs of representatives within and across political parties and show that cooperation was common in the past but is rare today. We also show that despite short-term fluctuations, partisanship, or non-cooperation, in the U.S. Congress has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years and shows no sign of slowing or reversing. Moreover, the data suggest that American voters have been electing increasingly partisan, non-cooperating representatives at a local level which has resulted in declining measures of Congressional productivity.

It’s as if neither side even wants to understand the other any more. Or that individual representatives, even if they want to, don’t have that option if they are to avoid being punished by voters. A representative who actually tries to reach across party lines to do things that are legitimately good for the nation is an increasingly rare breed.

The study also found that the small bit of cross party cooperation that we do occasionally see today is mostly due to just a very few representatives who cooperate far more frequently than others do. Most prominent are Southern Democrats who vote with their Republican colleagues on certain issues: “Most super-cooperators are Democrats who hail from Texas (12 appearances), Mississippi (7), Alabama (5), Louisiana, Indiana (4 appearances each), Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia (3 each). The 104th Congress (1995–1996) had the most super-cooperators (13), all of whom were Democrats, mostly from Southern states…”

Who or what is driving this polarization? The researchers don’t really assign blame as such, but they do note, not surprisingly I think, that the most significant impetus for polarization has come from the Republican side:

The agreement rates of cross-party (CP) pairs (comprising one Democrat and one Republican) and same-party (SP) pairs (comprising two Democrats or two Republicans) were most similar in the 91st Congress, during the Nixon Administration (Fig. 1). The distributions of votes between SP and CP pairs are most different in the past two decades, owing in part to a galvanizing movement first led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) [22]. … From 1949 until 1969, there had been only a moderate difference in the CP and SP vote distribution, during which the disparity peaked from 1961–67; thereafter the distributions began to converge, before diverging again in 1983 during the Reagan Administration. Since 1983, SP and CP pairs have steadily bifurcated until firmly becoming a bimodal distribution. There has been scant overlap between the two distributions since 2003, during the George W. Bush Administration continuing through the Obama Presidency.

Is there any solution? Personally, I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I think not. At least not before things get a lot worse and some real urgent disaster or crisis of public order or public health forces people to work together again.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone knows the cause of this polarization. Documenting that it really exists is the easy part; learning why it is happening, and if there is anything we can do about it, is something else entirely.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding of the entire study is that polarization isn’t just a phenomenon of the very recent past, but has been increasing in an explosive, exponential fashion over the last 60 years, and gives no signs of slowing down. I don’t feel terribly optimistic on reading the following:

…the data show that [a high level] of Congressional noncooperation
is not simply a recent phenomenon but has been increasing
exponentially for over 60 years, and implying that non-cooperation
breeds more non-cooperation, multiplicatively. Therefore, while it is
incorrect to say that recent divisive political figures such as Cheney,
Delay, Rumsfeld, Bush, Pelosi, the Kennedys and Clintons, are
responsible for increasing partisanship, they have actively contributed to
it because those are the types of people the system selects. In addition,
this exponential increase in non-cooperation shows no indication of
slowing down, let alone reversing…

Paradoxically, even as people vote into office an increasingly polarized and ineffective congress, their view of that congress gets lower and lower. Congressional approval rates in 1960 were around the 60th percentile; now they hover around the 10th. Democracy really does seem to be in a bit of a mess, in the US at least.


Photo credit: Tinao Bau, via Creative Commons.