Origins and Voter Response to Polarization


This week's readings focus on issues of polarization in the political process, specifically its origins and impacts on policymaking. I'm interested in thinking more about the origins and voters' response to polarization.

Ornstein and Mann discuss the origins of modern polarization in 1960s societal shifts and the 1978 election, focusing on Newt Gingrich's strategy to destroy America's trust in Congress and unite Republicans in refusing to work with Democrats (33). I wonder how this strategy lines up with Burstein's argument that issue salience impacts voters' responsiveness, and that: "citizens who care about an issue are especially likely to take elected officials' actions on that issue into account on election day" (30). It seems that Gingrich's strategy was to keep voter attention away from policy issues and focus it on dysfunction within the institution of Congress.

Arceneaux and Nicholson provide an analysis of the political attitudes of people who support the Tea Party, which is a modern polarizing force in Congress. The Tea Party may also be seen as the manifestation of Gingrich's ultimate goal - voters became so dissatisfied with Congress that many new Tea Party representatives were elected in 2010 with the explicit goal of refusing to compromise. At the same time, the Tea Party is very issue focused, with strong and often uncompromising views on social issues and government aid. With the 2012 elections, voters did seem to be responding to these salient policy issues by removing many newly elected Tea Party officials and electing many lifetime bureaucrats to office. This election though did not necessarily reduce the level of polarization in Congress, which makes me wonder why, as McCarty expresses, that the polarization of elected officials is much greater than the polarization of the electorate (247).

If the general population elects politicians, why is it that officials do not truly represent those who elected them? McCarty provides many factors that he argues have polarized elected officials over time: southern realignment, increased homogeneity in the parties, redistricting, primary elections, the changing media coverage of the political process and rising income inequality in the U.S. (228-231). But I'm not sure this completely answers my question. Why is it that voters elect representatives who do not reflect voter perspectives? Why do voters accept such polarized candidates as the new normal?


I think the point you raise about the relationship between issue saliency and the impact that public opinion has on policy-making is very important in the context of party polarization. It does seem that the Congress hating/issue distracting mechanism does seem to work well at detracting from the issues our legislators are debating about. The Tea Party motivates its base under a common theme of less government, and rarely specifies particular policy problems. The fact that our political discourse has become more ideologically based and is presented in the media as a boxing match, gives legislators less flexibility to be unique in their policy decisions for fear of being labeled a “liberal” or “conservative.” It could be that the electorate has become used to the slow pace of progress in Congress that they don’t even expect differently.

Great questions Laura. In respect to your question, "Why is it that officials do not truly represent those who elected them?", part of the reason might be due to Mayhew's assertion that the focus of most elected officials is to get reelected. If this is inherently true, than most officials will only seek to represent those constituents and individuals who's resources are needed to acquire enough votes to win reelection. These individuals include but are not limited to, the elites, those that carry significant political clout, as well as interest groups and lobbyists. As a result, if reelection is the aim, the most effective use of office is to use its powers to meet the needs of those that can greatly impact election outcomes. Unfortunately, this is not the everyday constituent.

You raise fascinating questions at the end of your post, Laura. Like you, I'm not sure if I can come up with satisfactory answers; my inclinations, however, have me wondering (rather cynically) if voters are simply being held captive to a process that has become increasingly defined and funded by political activists and party elites. Also similar Marissa's point about the slow pace of Congress, I wonder if this is a political dynamic which the electorate has come to expect and does not experience much agency in shaping (especially given the campaign finance and political media landscape described by Mann & Ornstein).

Good points, Laura. The only thing I’d add is that our presidential system makes obstruction both easy and effective strategically. Because there are so many “veto points,” it’s easy to stop policy from getting passed; then it’s mostly a matter of winning the PR battle by pinning the blame on the other party. And since the average voter only sees the “what” (gridlock) and not the “how” (obstructionism), the obstructor is rarely held accountable at the polls.

Interesting post Laura, but unfortunately I have a cynical take on this as well. Like Rachel said, voters are largely held captive to a two party system where a few elites call the shots. While voters may consider themselves “moderates” they are still served up the usual menu of democrats and republicans who have received their party’s endorsement. The fact is, moderate candidates who may be a more accurate reflection of the voter base struggle to get momentum because they don’t get the backing of the more polarized elites (PACS, party leadership, interest groups, etc.). I believe this is a much larger problem for republicans than it is for democrats. By and large, democrats have remained near the center of the political spectrum, while republicans have strayed far to the right, leaving their more centrist members without a place to call home. In the end republicans (and democrats) who may be inclined to vote for the Dick Lugar’s of the world, are forced to vote the handpicked candidate who is wiling to toe the party line.

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