Political Polarization and Obama’s First Term

Ryan Lizza’s excellent new piece in the New Yorker examines a series of memos that underscore some of the tough choices President Obama made in his first term.

An early passage caught my eye:

According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties…Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

The authors to whom Hacker refers have a webpage I’ve been perusing, that shows some interesting data linking income inequality and immigration rates to increased polarization throughout history. Three graphs to note are the overall polarization graph as well as the graph showing the harder ideological swing the House Republicans have taken recently and the corresponding graph for the Senate. The three graphs refer to the liberal / conservative divide over economic policy.

I often hear friends bemoan the false balance the media creates between the two parties and the liberal / progressive corollary that “the other side does it worse.” I do think conservatives are generally better at creating, distributing and adopting messages for media consumption. There are a lot of reasons for that, but maybe an overlooked but important one is that they benefit from a more uniformly ideological set of elected officials.

In any case, I do think we benefit from having more moderates in power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *