Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

July 16, 2014

We love extremists

The most important problem facing our national government is political polarization, because it makes governing virtually impossible — unless one party can dominate the House, Senate and White House.

What’s driving the problem? One view, favored by political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, is that Americans are growing more polarized and their increasingly extreme differences are reflected in Congress. Another view, associated with Morris Fiorina of Stanford University, is that polarization in Congress stems more from a disconnect between politicians and the general public. (By the way, both camps reject the view propounded on cable television: that gerrymandering is the main cause.)

I have long put my chips down on the Abramowitz side. And two new analyses suggest I’ve made a good bet.

The first, from the Pew Research Center, shows that the share of Democrats with very unfavorable opinions of Republicans, and the share of Republicans with very unfavorable opinions of Democrats, has risen to about 40 percent, from about 16 percent 20 years ago. And today, more than a quarter of Democrats and more than a third of Republicans believe that the other party is a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

Yet the public is still significantly more centrist than Congress is, the Pew research shows. And that raises a core puzzle that has long favored the Fiorina view: If political polarization is driven by the public, how can Congress be so much more polarized than the people?

The answer may lie in new evidence that voter preferences have been misread and in fact vary substantially within even “moderate” congressional districts. These findings are from a study by political scientists Nolan McCarty of Princeton University, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford, Boris Shor of the University of Chicago, Chris Tausanovitch of the University of California at Los Angeles and Chris Warshaw of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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