PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite


State Lawmakers Can’t Find Common Ground Either

Author: Peter R. Orszag
December 21, 2011


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.

View full text of article.

More on This Topic


Nobody Wants to Be a Politician Now

Author: Peter R. Orszag
Bloomberg View

Young people are disaffected with the political process and lack any interest in running for office, a new book by Jennifer Lawless of...


Do-Nothing Congress Is Your Fault

Author: Peter R. Orszag

Peter R. Orszag writes that increasingly extreme differences in Americans' political views may be driving the polarization of the U.S. Congress.


A Moneyball Approach to Government

Authors: Peter R. Orszag and John Bridgeland

Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland argue that the federal government needs to do a better job of figuring out what programs work, giving more...


Leaning From Behind

Authors: Micah Zenko and Amelia Wolf
Foreign Policy

There is a troubling lack of women in the world of foreign-policy making. Micah Zenko and Amelia M. Wolf discuss the consequences of inherent...