Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Political Polarization at the State Level

Political polarization in many countries is becoming more and more apparent as the years pass.  This problem leads to legislative deadlock and results in highly paid adults (and I use the word loosely) behaving more like children in an elementary school playground than adults who should be capable of showing at least a modicum of politeness.  One of the more divisive political playgrounds, the United States Congress and Senate is so polarized that during 2012, the 112th Congress was able to pass a total of only 200 bills into law, many of them concerning the renaming of post office buildings and other items key to the ongoing business of running a nation.  What's really annoying is that politicians take an unbending view of an issue that follows the party line and are completely unable to see that there could be a compromise viewpoint, even when they are presented with incontrovertible evidence that proves them wrong.

Unfortunately, political polarization is not limited to American federal politics.  An interesting blog by Boris Shor, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago and Nolan McCarty, Professor at Princeton University looks at the degree of polarization in America's state legislatures where it appears that conservatives and liberals are more than willing to lock horns.  As the authors note, the problem in the past has been that Democrats in one state may be more like Republicans in another and vice versa.  Fortunately, this problem has been solved by the aforementioned gentlemen in a paper entitled "The Ideological Mapping of American Legislatures" released in 2011.  This study uses the spatial theory of voting in legislatures to look at the roll call voting records in all state legislative bodies between 1993 and 2009 in conjunction with the answers to a series of questions provided to legislative candidate.

With this data in mind, the authors have provided this graphic:

The horizontal axis on the graph represents the degree of political polarization which is defined as "the average ideological distance between the median of the Democratic and Republican parties in the state legislatures".  A higher number means a greater degree of political polarization.  The dashed vertical line is the level of federal Congressional polarization for comparison.

You'll notice right away that California is a standout in this analysis.  State Republicans are extremely conservative and state Democrats are extremely liberal.  Colorado is the second-most polarized followed by Washington, Michigan and Arizona. A total of 27 states are more polarized than Congress in Washington.  The least polarized state is Louisiana (both sides lean towards being conservative) followed by Rhode Island, Nebraska and West Virginia.  It is also important to note that in the case of California, Democrats dominate the state so, while the political divide is great, the state legislature is not gridlocked as is the case in Washington, D.C. 

Why is political theatre so polarized today and how does this impact voters?  A study by Eric McGhee, Seth Masket, Boris Shor, Steven Rogers and Nolan McCarty examines the issue of open primary systems as it relates to political polarization.  While many have suspected that open primary systems reduces polarization, the authors actually note that the more open the primary system, the result is a more liberal Democrat and a more conservative Republican.  A paper by Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman notes that strong partisanship has developed among wealthier and more politically sophisticated voters who are now more coherent in their beliefs.  Americans have adopted more extreme positions on certain hot button issues like abortion, sexual immorality etcetera and, as a result, the relationship between voting behaviour and party identification (liberal vs. conservative ideology) has reached its highest level in the past 50 years.  As well, it is important to note that voters that are more politically active or who identify themselves strongly with a given political party tend to have more extreme positions on an issue that the population as a whole.

Why should political polarization concern us at both the federal and state levels?  Unfortunately, voters end up with politicians that would rather pander to interest groups than do what is in the best interest for all.  Politicians are more concerned about where their votes will come from in the next election and about following the lead of their political masters than they are about doing what is right.  And that's just wrong.

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