Party Polarization: Congress, Why So Extreme?

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You’re sitting at a dinner table with the in-laws, and they’re liberal as the day is long. Or, you’re golfing with that old friend from college, the one who voted for George W. Bush in 2000. There’s a reason talking politics at the table is a big no-no if you want to continue sharing a bed with your significant other, and there’s a reason you don’t distract someone from their backstroke to discuss policy or the latest Supreme Court ruling.

Politics are divisive. They elicit an often frustrated and emotional reaction, and especially when discussed among those of like opinion who reinforce our own opinions, we tend to only polarize further. Polarization and division are just what our government as a whole is seeing at its legislative dinner party up on the hill. Using the Common Space DW-nominate scoring system, FiveThirtyEight showed that the houses of Congress “are the most divided they’ve been in our lifetimes.”

How the system determines this is by giving each member of the House and Senate a score from negative one to positive one, positive being conservative and negative being liberal. From there, it compares the total score of both houses of the legislature. At present, the score difference is 0.47, the only score, apart from 2013, to ever go above 0.4. Explanations for this are plentiful and have numerous implications.

One possible explanation is that stressful political and economic conditions have been steadily increasing differences of opinion as pressure polarizes the parties. The greater the need for solutions and the higher the stakes, the greater the disagreement on what those solutions should be. A chronically dissatisfied public suffering from a weak job market and low national morale makes an already uncertain job that much more on the line.

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