Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Real Problem With U.S. Politics: The Electorate is Shades of Purple while Representatives are Increasingly Deeper Reds and Blues

By Gavin ZhangPublished May 1, 2013

Unfortunately, the problem of Congressional deadlock isn't just caused by a growing trend in perceived political polarization but is additionally caused by the discrepancy between the Congressional representatives who are actually growingly politically polarized, while their constituents remain relatively moderate.

There is something broken with our political system when Rand Paul chooses to rant for 13 hours against the president instead of spending those 13 hours trying to reach across the aisle and work together with the democrats. Unfortunately, the problem of Congressional deadlock isn’t just caused by a growing trend in perceived political polarization but is additionally caused by the discrepancy between the Congressional representatives who are actually growingly politically polarized, while their constituents remain relatively moderate. 

Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Nolan McCarty reveals that the actual political polarization between conservatives and liberals is growing.  Congressional voters now organize their political alignment with respect to the issues.  Conservative Democrats have shifted into the Republican Party, while liberal Republicans identify as modern-day Democrats. Representatives who are pro-life, anti-tax, anti-federal government are almost exclusively in the Republican Party whereas the liberal counterpart of pro-choice, redistribution, and pro-federal government are in the Democratic Party.  This effect implies that in Congress, the politically radical voices are speaking louder than the politically moderate voices.

Political polarization between Congressional representatives may be the result of more deep-seated issues, however.  Psychologist Mike Dodd, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, reveals data that shows there may be fundamental biological clues that reveal proclivities to being politically conservative versus liberal. 

Political conservatives and liberals fundamentally differ by the way each group reacts to stimuli.  Dodd’s studies reveal that Conservatives are generally more squeamish than Liberals.  In a series of experiments Dodd had 48 adults who identified as strongly conservative or strongly liberal look at a series of 33 pictures.  Such pictures ranged from “pleasant” images of fluffy bunnies to “repulsive” images of maggot-infested wounds.  As these participants looked at the photos, researchers measured the amount of sweat fluctuation from the individual’s skin which revealed the level of emotional excitement.  Conservatives responded more strongly to the unpleasant images. 

Correspondingly, Dodd repeated the experiment with images of divisive politicians, i.e. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  Conservatives responded more strongly to pictures of Bill Clinton, who they disagreed with.  Liberals, correspondingly had a stronger positive reaction to politicians they agreed with as opposed to politicians they disagreed with.

These studies may explain the power of emotion at work in Congressional politics and how strongly Conservative politicians like Rand Paul can filibuster for a straight 13-hours on divisive topics on drone attacks.

Is it logical to assume that such studies can explain the perceived polarization in the general electorate?  Surprisingly no. 

Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, John Chambers, looked at nationally representative data ranging from 1970-2004.  The sample size was rather large including some 43,000 respondents over the years.  The results revealed that actual polarization has remained steady since the 1970s.  However, if you turned on any cable news network, the picture they paint is one that depicts a nation greatly divided by red and blue states.  What gives?

The real problem with U.S. politics is not the actual polarization between red and blue, but the discrepancy between the general electorate and their representatives.  What we see is a relatively moderate voter base that is being represented by Congressional voters who are politically more extreme.  Because there is actual polarization within Congress, the hostility spills over as reported by the media thereby increasing the perceived polarization within the general populace.  The problem is not helped by the relative ease for the layman to access political bloggers on Twitter or Tumblr, who often voice relatively political extreme views that don’t speak for the general population.  Subsequently, the electorate then votes egregiously according to this perceived political polarization because they now believe that people of the opposite party will never be able to compromise.

Chambers’ study concludes on a positive note as he reveals that there is more ground for compromise than originally thought. He reveals that while everyone overestimates the actual amount of polarization, not everyone reacts to it the same way.  Strong Conservatives and Liberals fundamentally see the gulf between themselves and the opposition as incredibly wide.  Political independents judged polarization the most accurately in comparison to the amount of actual political polarization.  This study shows that the nation as a whole, is not fundamentally incapable of seeing eye to eye, and that the general electorate is more of a shade of purple as opposed to strictly divided into red and blue.