Why gridlock in Washington is your fault


Supporters of Obamacare's birth control coverage mandate demonstrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The American people are overwhelmingly polarized. Everyone knows this.

Except that not everyone does. And in fact, a new study from the University of Maryland attempts to dispel this myth and pin the blame for polarization squarely on members of Congress rather than the American people.

Unfortunately, the study comes up short.

First, here's the basic argument it makes, after combing over dozens of polls that tested hundreds of issues in both red and blue parts of the United States:

Comparing the views of people who live in red Congressional districts or states to those of people who live in blue Congressional districts or states, across 388 questions, majorities or pluralities took opposing positions in about one out of thirty cases (just 3.6 percent of the time). In two out of three cases there were no statistical differences.

Pretty little polarization, right?

And here's an example of how that plays on a particularly contentious issue, gay rights. While the study does acknowledge some key differences on the issue, here's where it found surprising unity:

However, for numerous other questions on gay and lesbian issues, views were not polarized. On the general issue of whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society, a majority in blue states (63%) and a plurality in red states (49% to 42%) said it should be accepted. Majorities favored civil unions for gay or lesbian couples in both red states (53%) and blue states (71%), though the statistically significant difference was in the expected direction.

The main problem with the study is that it focuses on red and blue states/districts and not red and blue people.

The fact is that the vast majority of states and districts include healthy amounts of both Republicans and Democrats. In the 2012 election, your average blue state included 39 percent Mitt Romney votes, and your average red state had more than 41 percent voters for President Obama.

Those large clumps of opposition voters in both red and blue states mean that, unless either side is overwhelmingly united on a given issue (i.e. more than 80 percent), a red state is likely to have the same position as a blue state, and it's going to look like a big kumbaya moment.

For example, on an issue like civil unions for gay couples, 80 percent of Romney voters could be opposed, but as long as the other 20 percent of Romney voters and 100 percent of Obama supporters support them, your average red state will joint blue stats in being pro-civil union.

Does this mean that the people inside of those states aren't polarized? No. You've still got Republicans overwhelmingly opposed and Democrats overwhelmingly in favor. And the opinions on the extremes are probably pretty strongly held.

What this study seems to be suggesting is that members of Congress, in most cases, represent very diverse constituencies in which there is consensus on a whole bunch of issues -- many which might surprise people. That's a fair point, and it's certainly an argument for more compromise.

But it doesn't mean that individual voters or political parties aren't getting more polarized.

They are. And the data are pretty clear.

Witness this:

Polarized

This:

Polarized2

And this (our write-up here):

Polarized3

 

But for a moment, let's grant the premise that there are lots of things on which the American people agree. A big reason members of Congress don't respond to those consensuses is because voters are getting more and more predictable in the general election. Summer polling in the last three presidential elections has shown the number of genuinely persuadable people in the final months of a campaign is somewhere between 6 and 10 percent.

Given so few swing voters, if your state or district went at least 55 percent for Romney or 55 percent for Obama, you're probably pretty safe. And at that point, you only have to worry about your primary. And you know who votes in primaries? The most polarized Americans, who by virtue of all of this continue to have out-sized influence in American politics.

Until Americans stop voting so reliably for one party or another, it's pretty hard to call them anything other than heavily polarized.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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