Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Polarization, Representation and Diversity

Timothy Sherratt


August 4, 2014

By Timothy Sherratt 

It used to be said of the polarized Congress that it misrepresented the American people themselves, who were far less divided than their elected representatives. That was true in 2004 and remains true today. But according to a recent Pew survey, the public has moved in Congress’s direction. In ten years, the numbers of consistent liberals and conservatives have jumped by a combined ten percentage points while the percentage of those with mixed views has dropped by ten, from 49 to 39 percent. Unlike some measures of Congressional polarization, there is not yet “clear blue water” between Democrats and Republicans in the population, but 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat while 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, also a marked change in the last decade. 

The same study reports levels of animosity to the other party have risen, with “intense partisans” on both sides accusing the other’s policies of threatening the nation’s wellbeing. Those numbers have also risen sharply since 2004.

Polarization is part philosophical conflict, part culture war. Its collateral effects include perpetuating the disdain for government in general, and the federal government in particular. On major policy matters, it vilifies horse-trading and compromise, the very governing skills likely to remain undeveloped among the ideologically convinced. 

Striking as these figures are, they represent continuity as much as change, for the trends they reflect are old ones. But they form an informative backdrop to the fall elections and set the table for 2016.

The trends observed by Pew are echoed in renewed speculation that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will mount a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination despite her deference to the presumptive nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The party Clinton hopes to lead is more, and more intensively, left-leaning than in 2008. Warren’s championing of financial reform and consumer protection sounds all the right populist notes, while Clinton’s party establishment and governing credentials may not so harmonize.

If Senator Warren runs, she will reinforce the trends in polarization Pew found in its study. Her Democratic Party would be more progressive, and win or lose she would compel other candidates to respond to this incarnation of the party.

On the Republican side, there is more uncertainty than the Democrats’ apparently clear-cut choice between Clinton and Warren. A G.O.P. Senate victory in November may whet the appetite for winning back the White House with an agenda driven more by governing than by ideology. Interest in mainstream candidates like former governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) suggests the Republicans may resist nominating a conservative populist if that candidate lacks governing experience. But the rightward shift in the party’s center of gravity will exert a powerful challenge to such a move for Republicans just as its opposite will for Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who doesn’t deny 2016 ambitions, is conservative and populist. In lieu of governing experience, he is positioning himself as creative on policy—witness his partnership with Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) to pursue criminal justice reform.

In all of this, how well are citizens served? The argument that the polarized Congress misrepresents the people remains compelling, only less so than before, given Pew’s report on growing citizen polarization. What remains troubling is the political dominance of polarization rather than political diversity, also recorded in detail by Pew.  

Diversity does not easily find political expression. Pew’s Less Partisan-Less Predictable category, who make up 57% of the population but 43% of the politically engaged include among others the “racially diverse and religious” Faith and Family Left and the “conservative on government not social issues” Young Outsiders. It is hard to see such cohorts well served by the political options available to them. 

Giving political diversity improved representation calls for electoral reform. What this latest chapter in the polarization narrative suggests is that electoral reform, already remote, will recede ever further into the background, while the negative effects of polarization will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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