The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Polarization without parties

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For many decades, Nebraska’s state legislature has stood out among the rest as the only one in the country with just one chamber and zero parties. Since 1937, the Unicam, as it is often called, has been run on an officially nonpartisan basis; election ballots contain no party labels, and there are no party caucuses or minority or majority leaders. The speaker is elected via secret ballot. And for many decades, Nebraska was, unsurprisingly, distinct for having one of the least partisan voting patterns of any state legislature.

This has changed recently. In the past decade, according to data collected by Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty, the Nebraska legislature has polarized more rapidly than any other state legislature in the country. Once portrayed as basically a depolarized Kansas, Nebraska actually surpassed Kansas in legislative partisanship in 2010 and has become even more polarized since then. The chart below shows a measure of chamber polarization for all 50 statehouses over the past two decades. Nebraska is highlighted, showing its rapid growth in polarization.

What’s happening in Nebraska? How do you get legislative polarization in a chamber with no official parties? Boris Shor and I address this phenomenon in a new article forthcoming from State Politics and Policy Quarterly. (Ungated version here.) This is, at least in part, a story about term limits, which Nebraska adopted in 2000 (later than many other states) and which didn’t start kicking people out of office until 2006. This opened up many legislative seats that had been dominated by long-term incumbents for decades.

But getting people to run for those newly open seats proved challenging, and the formal parties stepped in to actively recruit people to run for office. Increasingly, state Republican leaders sought doctrinaire conservatives to run, while state Democratic officials sought reliable liberals to run.

Through the use of social network analysis of campaign finance records, we additionally find that the donor pool in Nebraska has become more polarized. It used to be quite common for donors to contribute across party lines; a group or individual might donate $500 to a Republican candidate and then quickly donate $500 to a Democrat in another district. This is happening less over time. Nebraska’s high-level donors are increasingly just contributing within one party.

This means that, to the extent legislators are beholden to the people who fund their campaigns, they’re now beholden to a more partisan group of individuals. Yesterday’s donors were fine with legislators voting with colleagues across the aisle on a broad range of issues; today’s donors expect greater party discipline.

The findings in this paper suggest a few important lessons about the sources of partisanship in a government. For one thing, it’s not necessarily created by officeholders. Numerous interviews with Nebraska legislators (and many other studies elsewhere) show that politicians are often quite content with weak partisanship or nonpartisanship, even if it means passing fewer bills. Nonpartisanship can be much less contentious, and indeed, the Nebraska Unicam seems like a very pleasant place to work.

The people who want partisanship in a legislature are often those outside the chamber who want to see it accomplish some sorts of policy changes. In Nebraska, these people include the formal state party chairmen, campaign consultants, donors and even the recently termed-out governor, Dave Heineman, a previous GOP party chairman and 10-year governor. These elites are imposing greater party discipline on the chamber even as many legislators resist it. As a former state Republican chairman described his work:

We were trying to partisanize the legislature, and that was unbecoming of the body, and you know, I’m not sure when or where being partisan became a bad word.

Another lesson here is that you don’t necessarily need parties to experience polarization. To be sure, the lack of explicit party labels depresses the amount of legislative polarization we see in Nebraska, but politically interested people in the state’s capital are still capable of figuring out which legislators affiliate with which parties and care about which issues, and they can help some people stay in office while showing others the door. Reformers who seek to remove parties from our political system should look to Nebraska for an example of how tenacious parties can be.