Political Polarization: In Congress or in Us?

A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll, here, on the recent failure of gun legislation, casts broader light on the political polarization that began in the 1980s and has increasingly characterized American democracy ever since.  In sorting out the causes of this polarization, a major question is whether polarization in Congress distorts the much more centrist preferences of the broader public or whether Congressional polarization reflects a polarized public.

A common perception is that a large majority of the public support gun legislation of the sort that recently failed, which would suggest the polarization in Congress is a distortion of “public opinion.”  The most provocative finding of this new poll, in contrast, is that, of those “very closely” following the legislation process, the split was virtually even regarding whether they were pleased or not that the legislation had failed:  48 percent said they were angry/disappointed, and 47 percent were relieved or happy.  Democracies tend to respond to the most politically engaged citizens.  These data suggest support for the view that polarization in Congress, on this issue at least, reflects polarization among the engaged electorate.

This result is also in line with some of best recent empirical work on polarization more generally.  In the mid-2000s, Morris Fiorina and others published a book, Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America, which argued that Americans were generally less partisan and more centrist than members of Congress.  More recently, though, Alan Abramowitz concluded in The Disappearing Center that the more people care about and engage in political activity (such as voting), the more polarized they become; with increased political participation comes increased polarization.  This new poll data on gun legislation appears to further support that view.  If so, Congressional polarization is not a distortion of what the most politically engaged Americans believe, but a reflection of those beliefs.




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