Faculty Spotlight

Laurel Harbridge

Untangling partisanship, polarization, and public views

laurel harbridge

IPR political scientist Laurel Harbidge presents her work on party agendas and priorities at an IPR colloquium. 

Congress vs. the President. Democrats vs. Republicans. The House vs. the Senate. These days, can any politicians get along or get anything done? Through her research, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge seeks to bring clarity to the emotional—sometimes hostile—world of American politics, to understand how and why our leaders behave the way they do.

“For me, the interest stems from being the sort of analytic person who wants to understand the world around them,” Harbridge said. “With something like politics, people can feel like it’s moral, like one side’s right, one side’s wrong.”

Harbridge, an assistant professor of political science who came to Northwestern after earning her PhD from Stanford University, studies how institutions interact with policymaking, how party structures act as barriers to change, and how public expectations for bipartisan behavior compare with elected officials' actions.

“I always wanted to understand more of why things happen,” she recounted in explaining why she looks at congressional incentives and institutional arrangements. “Are there explanations beyond whether someone has good ideas or bad ideas?”

Parties and Polarization 

One of Harbridge’s main areas of research looks at the role of institutional features in the observed increase in partisan polarization. 

The conventional wisdom is this kind of ideological story where the policy positions of members of the two parties have grown farther apart,” she said. “While that’s part of the story, I don’t think that’s the whole story.”

Her ongoing research, compiled in a forthcoming book, tries to better understand polarization and partisan conflict, and how changes in party strategy could lead to increased polarization. 

While researchers and the media point to roll call votes as one metric that shows a growing divide between parties, Harbridge decided to examine which bills are being called for a vote in the first place.

“There are reasons why particular bills move forward sometimes and not others,” she said. Looking at the underlying coalitions on a broader set of bills and those attended to by congressional leaders allows her to “disentangle” whether partisanship in voting reflects a lack of common ground between members of Congress or results from the parties deliberately “manufacturing conflict.”

Harbridge found in the 1970s and early 1980s, party agendas heavily favored bills with bipartisan coalitions because the majority party was usually split due to their representation of heterogeneous districts. By the 1990s, and continuing to today, however, that had changed. 

“As you got a better alignment over time with Democrats representing places that are liberal and aligned with their policy positions, and Republicans representing places that are conservative and aligned with their policy positions, the parties are freer to pursue more partisan pieces of legislation,” she said. 

Public Opinion and Partisanship Preferences

Another of her research streams focuses on public views of bipartisanship. Congress’ plummeting public approval ratings—now at their lowest point ever—has led many to believe that Americans favor bipartisanship and want to see more compromise in Congress. 

In a 2014 article in Legislative Studies Quarterly, originally an IPR working paper, Harbridge and her colleagues offer a more nuanced look at what people really want from congressional policymaking. When people see a possible policy victory for their party, they view bipartisan compromise in the same negative way as a win for the opposing party. 

“The public might say they want bipartisanship and more compromise for Congress to get things done,” she said, “but they aren’t necessarily providing those incentives in their own party.”

Harbridge has multiple projects building off this line of research. One examines how the public views gridlock, revealing that voters prefer the other party reaching its objectives over gridlock. Yet they view gridlock more favorably when they see it as stemming from ideology, as opposed to partisan fighting. Another project surveys state legislators, trying to understand why they vote against pieces of legislation that move policy closer to their most preferred position.

Her interest in gridlock, i.e., inaction, stems from different responses to gridlock within Congress in the current period and past eras. In the past, high levels of gridlock caused parties to shift from partisan to more bipartisan strategies. The current Congress, however, has faced extreme gridlock for an extended period, with no indication that will change.

She pointed out how in the current and previous Congress, Republicans focused their agenda around highly partisan bills, despite divided government.

“It’s ended in gridlock and garnered very little legislative success, and yet they don’t seem to be changing their strategy,” she remarked. “So I’m trying to grapple with, and understand why, gridlock isn’t as bad as many would think it should be—and understand what explains why they would pursue partisan legislation and not fear the electoral consequences enough to change their behavior.”

Laurel Harbridge is assistant professor of political science and an IPR faculty fellow.

Photo: P. Reese