Pundits should look at data, rather than mirrors, to find the real culprit behind the mess in Washington.

After this summer’s exhausting budget and debt ceiling follies, everyone who can turn on a TV knows that Congress is sharply polarized along party lines. But most pundits are way off on what causes it. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, too many of them miss political money’s pivotal role in creating disastrous deadlock. The evidence for this isn’t conjectural. It’s in the data for any who care to look.

Virtually all polls, including those of organizations like CBS that poll with the New York Times, acknowledge that public support for cutting Social Security and Medicare is minuscule and that the “no new taxes” posture assumed by Republicans and some Democrats is repudiated even by most members of the Tea Party (for more polls, see here, here, and here). The public is not sharply divided on these issues. Quite the contrary.

But on Sunday, a Times analyst once again tried to lay the blame for D.C. gridlock on the public. Brushing aside the importance of political money, Sheryl Stolberg instead recycled familiar arguments from various analysts who argue that you and I are responsible: “If Americans want to know why their elected officials can’t compromise…perhaps they ought to look in the mirror.”

Analysts and reporters need to stop looking in mirrors and start scrutinizing data. There is little evidence that Congressional polarization is rooted in sharp differences in public sentiment.

The most popular theory about the origins of polarization is the “cultural wars” approach. In this view, American society has fractured into warring segments over a set of “hot button” issues. Our highly polarized politics, runs the argument, just reflects deep differences over policy and ideology that now separate Americans from one another– differences that some television commentators profess to believe run deeper than at any time since the Civil War. But this just doesn’t hold up. Quite like false 1980s claims that American public opinion had shifted markedly to the right and that Ronald Reagan’s magic powers as a “Great Communicator” had established his position as the most popular American president of all time (see Ferguson and Rogers, “Right Turn” and Page and Shapiro, “The Rational Public“), this line is easily refuted by simply aligning data on public opinion over time.

As Morris Fiorina shows in his 2009 book “Disconnect“, whether you rely on Gallup, General Social Survey, or National Election Survey data, sharp ideological shifts in American opinion are not to be found. Between 1972 and 2004, for example, even the much-touted shift in the percentage of the population styling themselves “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate” bounced very little. Between the 1970s and the 2000s, the “liberal” label declined slightly in popularity, but only by about 5 points. All through the period the largest category of people who expressed a preference self-identified as “moderates,” while the percentage of people thinking of themselves as extreme conservatives actually fell. As Fiorina and Abrams comment in a 2008 study: “The percentage of exact middle-of-the scale placements was 27% in 1972 and 26% in 2004″ (see “Political Polarization in the American Public” in American Political Science Review, 11, 563-589).

Time graphs of the levels of these and similar measurements typically look like near-straight lines. If Americans were really becoming more extreme in their politics, the graphs would look quite different. To the extent any ideological change at all shows, Americans actually appear to be leaning slightly leftward. On some issues, such as same sex marriage, public opinion has moved sharply in that direction.

Given the mass of contrary data, analysts intent on finding electoral explanations for polarization typically appeal to some version of political “sorting” notions. The idea is that even if there is no basic change in the trend of opinion, perhaps the population is somehow shoehorning itself into more homogeneous political units that then battle out their differences. The most obvious suggestion, again much touted in the media, involves the gerrymandering of legislative districts. This is a testable hypothesis. Many have tested it. The upshot is that while some stunning examples of gerrymandering for partisan advantage certainly exist, such as the lurid Texas case that led to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s conviction, many counter-cases can also be found. In general, redistricting cannot possibly account for the observed degree of polarization. This actually should have been obvious all along: U.S. Senate districts have not changed at all, but the Senate exhibits about as much polarization as the House over the same period.

Many other “sort” theories have been advanced. Everyone knows that Republican strength in the South has surged. But a substantial part of the population was more conservative there to begin with; they didn’t change much. It also turns out that the sharpest increases in polarization occurred in the north and east. Most studies of geographic polarization thus end up concluding that geography has been at best a marginal factor.

Complicating the story by adding references to migration — of African-Americans from South to North and whites to the South — does not help much, either. The changes in each party’s regional strongholds undoubtedly bolster dominant viewpoints in each party by, for example, increasing the ranks of relative liberals in the Northeast and conservatives in the south and west. So differences between the parties should grow more distinct, right?

Wrong. Fiorina’s points about the lack of change in Southern opinion on policy and polarization above the Mason-Dixon line remain stumbling blocks. Pointing to all the intensely partisan Republican representatives who come from the Sunbelt is not an answer, but just reframes the question.

The one form of “sort” theory with traction actually undermines the logic of explaining political change over time through it. Studies by Fiorina and Levendusky are persuasive that individuals who hold specific “hot button” attitudes that political parties choose to highlight, such as abortion, gay rights, or stem cell research, tend to migrate toward the party championing those issues. But this research also shows that the phenomenon is miniscule — usually only a few percentage points. In reality, huge numbers of people holding hot button attitudes continue to affiliate with the “wrong” political party. Most also do not change their broader ideological label when they drift. So the overall ability of labels like “liberal” or “moderate” or “conservative” to predict positions even in most sensitive issue areas is still usually limited.

The conclusion has to be that “sorting” was a minor part of all the sound and the fury that came with polarization; it cannot be the Archimedean lever that moved the American political world. That was political money.

As I recently pointed out in the Financial Times, a tidal wave of political cash that emerged in the 1970s has washed away the remnants of the old seniority system in Congress, drastically changing the way that body operates. In its place, Congress now uses a system of “posted prices” for selecting who serves on committees and assumes leadership positions. Individual members of Congress compete for key slots by raising enormous amounts of money not only for themselves, but for the national congressional and senatorial campaign committees. These are controlled by Congressional party leaders. The leaders’ control of these committees, along with the vast fixed investments in research, polling, and media capabilities these committees maintain, gives them more leverage over individual Congressmen and women. It makes crossing party lines far more costly than, for example, in the nineteen fifties.

In dividing so sharply and refusing compromises, Congress is listening primarily to those who contribute political money, not the public. As a political slogan “No new taxes” was around long before the Tea Party. It is the mantra not of the public, but of a huge swath of super-rich Americans. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Warren Buffett readily acknowledges this simple truth. So should reporters who purport to analyze the roots of America’s current political stalemate.

This blog was first published on New Deal 2.0

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. This essay borrows from his recent paper, “Legislators Never Bowl Alone: Big Money, Mass Media, and the Polarization of Congress.”

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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.