The political wrangling in the U.S. this week over the extension of the payroll-tax holiday illustrates once again the new era of hyperpolarization. The gap between the two parties is wide, and few policy makers stand in the middle. The traditional model of centrist legislating is broken.
Rather than catch up with this reality, most Washington commentators still yearn for the good old days of bipartisan legislation driven by moderates. They believe that all we need to get there is stronger national leadership. However, new evidence from state legislatures shows that polarization is not just an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon.
In the political science literature on polarization in Congress, the big debate is about its cause (with widespread agreement that gerrymandering is only a bit player). Has polarization been driven by changes in the population or by an increasing gap between the policy-making elite and the public? This matters because, if the problem is simply with freelancing national policy makers, fixing it should be straightforward: Voters could simply elect different policy makers. If the cause is a more polarized population, though, the solutions are less clear and the problem is likely to be with us for a long time.
The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the blame-the-elites view is the way legislators who share the same constituents can have radically different points of view on policy. In the 112th Congress, for example, 17 states are represented by senators of different parties. The senators from mixed-party states represent the same people, yet often represent them in substantially different ways. This implies that legislators have the leeway to behave in a highly partisan manner that could be out of line with their constituents' views.