Menus Subscribe Search

What Makes Us Politic

capitol-building-dc

The Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Olga Bogatyrenko/Shutterstock)

Why Polarize?

• May 12, 2014 • 8:00 AM

The Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Olga Bogatyrenko/Shutterstock)

Why are state legislatures and voters both growing more polarized when it’s clear that almost no one gets into politics with the goal of driving the parties further apart? Presenters at a recent conference proposed some answers.

Last week, I participated in a conference called “American Gridlock: Causes, Characteristics, and Consequences of Polarization,” hosted by Jim Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka at American University. While many conferences on American politics feature mentions of polarization, this one focused on it exclusively, and it was fascinating to hear so much great research examining polarization from so many different perspectives.

One key lesson from this was that polarization is not just a figment of the imaginations of Washington reporters. This stuff is real. We saw evidence that voters seem to be polarizing, although there was interesting debate over just what that means. (Are they just sorting themselves out into like-minded communities? Are regular voters actually thinking more ideologically?)

We also saw further evidence of Congressional polarization, with Congress increasingly hamstringing presidents of the other party and making it more and more difficult to pass anything. Frances Lee offered some interesting evidence that the Senate has become less about policymaking and more about messaging, as the percentage of Senate staffers hired to do communications work has gone from about zero to close to 50 percent over the past half century. We saw evidence that the Supreme Court has become more polarized and that the media are contributing to this as well. Boris Shor demonstrated that many (although not all) state legislatures are becoming more polarized, and I devoted my talk to showing how many reforms designed to lessen partisanship basically don’t work.

Activists are increasingly organizing over a broader range of issues and they’ve become adept at getting political parties to adopt their stances, making it even harder for politicians to resist them.

As Hans Noel notes, there wasn’t very much discussion about just what’s driving this polarization, even if we observe it at all levels. Hans’ argument is that it’s being driven by ideological activists, who take over parties and compel elected officials to move further to the extremes.

I think this is an important point that is often missed in the discussion about polarization and ways to mitigate it. No one gets into politics with the goal of driving the parties further apart. (Well, almost no one; a 1950 APSA committee really did advocate that.) People get involved in politics usually because they want the government to do something different from what it’s currently doing. Maybe they think it should be harder to obtain an abortion or a handgun. Maybe they think corporate taxes should be lower or we should abolish the death penalty or end a war. They know that their own individual effort isn’t likely to change much, but maybe if they work alongside other people who share their views, or better yet convince a party to adopt their views, maybe they can convince some officeholders to change their minds, or replace them with new officeholders who don’t need to have their minds changed.

Activists also generally recognize that politicians prefer to play it safe. That is, officeholders take the stances they take because they’re trying to maximize their chances for re-election. So activists have to offer the politicians help (in terms of labor, endorsements, or money) to make up for the politicians changing their stance in a slightly less popular way, or they have to pose a threat (depriving them of labor, endorsements, or money) if the politicians don’t change their stance. Only when the reward or threat is perceived as great enough to overcome the penalty a politician believes she will face for switching to a less popular stance will a change happen.

Activists have become better at this over time. They’re increasingly organizing over a broader range of issues and they’ve become adept at getting political parties to adopt their stances, making it even harder for politicians to resist them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, this is how governing ideas are generated and translated into law. But it’s important to remember that the parties aren’t far apart because people hate each other; they’re far apart because people want the government to do things. This is why exhortations for common ground tend to fall on deaf ears. People favor compromise in principle, except on the one thing that drove them into politics in the first place.

Just as polarization isn’t really anyone’s goal, de-polarization isn’t much of a policy agenda. You can reform redistricting or open up primaries or organize a Senate Secret Santa program, but that won’t change the fact that activists still want stuff, and they’re the ones who appear to be in the driver’s seat.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.