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Yglesias on Polarization

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Yglesias, dissenting from my view, points to research that suggests that gerrymandering’s effect on political polarization is weak.  Here is one specific paper he references.  The abstract:

Both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link. First, we show that congressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences. Second, we conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various “neutral” districting procedures. We find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations. We do find that gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House; this increase is not an important source of polarization.

[update]: I found a better link to that paper.

So I might have been wrong about redistricting’s effect on political polarization but I appear to be vindicated about my concern over its effect on electoral competition.

And redistricting does appear to have a negative impact on electoral competition.  There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering.  But reducing polarization is not one of them.   

 Of course, I want to look more into this. Another paper which I haven’t been able to access yet seems to suggest that redistricting has modest effect on polarization.

Our results show that although there is an overall trend of increasing polarization, districts that have undergone significant changes as a result of redistricting have become even more polarized. Although the effect is relatively modest, it suggests that redistricting is one among other factors that produce party polarization in the House and may help to explain the elevated levels of polarization in the House relative to the Senate.

Either way it seems redistricting – no matter how unseemly – isn’t the main culprit behind our polarized politics.  

On Political Independents (i.e. closet partisans)

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Few things aggravate me more than pure partisanship. People who only side with the Democrats or Republicans make politics into a football match rather than a governing process to best serve the interests of the nation. However the reality is that even among self-identified “independents” astonishingly few actually are independent. Other than about 10% of the US population most “independents” really act just like partisans. A blog post at The Monkey Cage fills us in on what political scientists have known for decades.

The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.

Again, there is really no difference between partisans of either stripe and independent leaners. As far as their views of Obama are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether you say you’re a Democrat or an independent who leans Democrats, and the same is true on the other side of the aisle. Only “pure” independent appear to have evenly divided attitudes as of November, but, as above, these people are only a very small part of the sample — 7% overall.
The media, as the linked post makes clear, needs to stop acting like pure independents are always consequential in elections. I also have a stronger hope that the media will stop fueling the aggressive partisanship (the endless polling doesn’t help) and just report on issues as objectively as possible. The political horse race, football, or whatever analogy you prefer really cheapens our politics. Once our elected officials get to Washington, Beacon Hill, or wherever could really do us a favor and act like responsible representatives and not feed into the partisanship. Yet I worry that with our cynical media and hyper-partisan reinforcing electoral districts we will continue to polarize politically. We all need to make a conscience (however difficult) effort to not play into the partisan story-line. 
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