Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

In Congress, Are Polarized Politics a Sign of Good Representation?

Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

In Congress, Are Polarized Politics a Sign of Good Representation?

Article excerpt

In America today, there is a growing consensus that our politics are becoming increasingly polarized—especially in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many scholars argue that this polarization has had a negative impact on the policy making process. They have argued that, as members of Congress edge toward the ideological extremes of their parties, they fail to represent the needs of their constituents—at least in terms of creating effective policy. The perceived failure of members of Congress to represent the needs of their constituents, in turn, has led scholars and policymakers to propose solutions ranging from term limits to changing debate rules to address polarization and fix congressional dysfunction.

But what if this polarization is simply the result of members of Congress doing their best to represent the views of their constituents, issue by issue? That’s the argument made by Douglas J. Ahler and David E. Broockman in a recent paper.

In the paper, the authors focused on what they called the “delegate paradox.” They defined this term as when members of Congress choose a position on individual bills in order to maximize their issue agreement with their constituents’ preferences, rather than strictly adhering to an ideological framework. The paradox, then, was that this type of voting caused many members of Congress to score as more ideologically polarized than their constituents overall, even as they voted in alignment with their constituents’ views on individual issues.

Using Harvard’s CCES data—a national, stratified sample survey of more than 50,000 people—and an analysis of every roll call vote in the House of Representatives during the previous session, the authors sought to prove the existence of the “delegate paradox” by highlighting three key findings.

First, the authors considered what it would look like for hypothetical members to vote with their district’s median constituent on each issue. Using ideological scores, the authors found that these hypothetical members were significantly more polarized than their districts. The authors conducted this test to prove that ideological polarization and misalignment with constituents did not equate to a failure of representation. On the contrary, they argued that it may have indicated that members were successfully representing their constituents’ views on individual issues. …

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