Won’t You Be My (Hyper-Partisan) Neighbor?: Peter Orszag
Peter Orszag, Bloomberg - Our political system is so plagued by polarization, it’s difficult to move any legislation forward. In the late 1960s, significant overlap existed in votes cast by the most conservative Democrats in Congress and those cast by the most liberal Republicans. (See accompanying chart: Polarization in Congress.) By the late 1980s, the common ground had diminished. Today, it has virtually disappeared.
What’s causing this? Many people have said the problem is that Congressional districts have been redrawn to be as partisan as they can be, to keep politicians from each party in office as long as possible. (Optimizing the district lines in this manner is a harder problem than it may initially seem, as research by two Harvard economists has shown.) Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, for one, has blamed “the gerrymandering of political districts,” which made each one permanently Republican or Democratic, for “erasing the political middle.”
So, presumably, we could solve the problem by simply changing the rules on how congressional districts are drawn. A closer look at Congress, however, shows that redistricting isn’t a major cause of our polarization at all.
Compare, for example, historical trends in the House and the Senate. Senate districts are states, so they aren’t continually redrawn as congressional districts are. And yet the polarization patterns in the House and Senate have broadly tracked each other. (See accompanying chart: History of Congress.) Polarization between the two parties was relatively high in both houses for the first three decades of the 20th century. It dipped in the House and Senate alike from the mid- 1930s until the late 1970s, and then began climbing to record highs today.