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Parties, Partisanship & Cooperation

Does Polarization Lead to Less Support for Democratic Norms? 

Although affective polarization, or the extent to which members of one political party harbor negative feelings toward members of the other, has been on the rise in recent decades, we still do not know much about its political consequences. In a recent working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman looks at one of its potentially dangerous effects—that of eroding Americans’ belief in democratic norms and values. Druckman and his co-authors surveyed nearly 4,000 Americans, selected randomly via the internet, to determine their levels of affective polarization. They also gauged their support for the separation of powers and the right to free speech, among others. They find that high support for democratic norms predicts liberal policy positions, suggesting that the Democratic Party, at least at this moment, is seen as the “pro-norm” party. This matches their finding that those Democrats who hold less negative views of Republicans tend also to have less liberal policy positions and to be less supportive of democratic norms. The researchers observe that voters seem to view democratic norms as “just another partisan issue,” suggesting a need for more widespread civic education about the importance of democratic norms. Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR associate director.

How the Public Views Partisan Agenda Setting

Capitol Do Americans wish for more viewpoints to be included in the legislation considered by Congress? In Legislative Studies Quarterly, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge-Yong and her co-author investigate how American voters respond to the legislative majority party’s agenda setting—the control of which proposals are debated and voted upon. In two survey experiments, participants viewed mock newspaper articles discussing proposed legislation and answered questions about their perceptions of the legislative process. A third experiment examined participants’ responses to more general characterizations of which proposals received attention or were ignored. The first two experiments focused on criminal justice reform and energy policy respectively, and the third experiment asked general questions about government agenda-setting and fairness. The authors hypothesized that majority-party supporters would support their party’s legislation regardless of ignored alternatives, while backers of the minority party would be less supportive when minority or bipartisan-backed proposals were ignored. However, they found that all subjects, regardless of political identity, were skeptical of legislation when they learned alternative proposals from the minority party or from bipartisan groups had been ignored, showing that fairness in the legislative process is important to the public. These findings suggest that Americans value inclusion and accountability in politics. The researchers also note that 59% of survey respondents thought that there is little or no news coverage of alternative policy proposals, which suggests that important intermediaries are not helping voters understand the winner and losers in the legislative process.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. Political Polarization

Partisanship Did the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate partisanship and polarization? In a new working paper, Druckman and his colleagues examine the impact that the pandemic had on affective polarization–how much partisans feel more negatively toward the opposing political party than about their own. To document polarization trends, the researchers use three datasets. Their main dataset includes over 300,000 interviews from July 2019–July 2020 and shows that affective polarization remained flat from July 2019 until the start of COVID-19 but declined once the pandemic began. After George Floyd’s death, affective polarization increased back to pre-pandemic levels. The two other data sources show no evidence of an increase in polarization after the pandemic began. The researchers also conducted a survey experiment with 1,503 respondents, one-third of whom read about the pandemic before answering questions about their faith in the country’s ability to deal with the pandemic. Two control groups either read about an unrelated topic or read nothing prior to answering questions. Having respondents think about COVID-19 before considering politics reduced the affective polarization they felt. Overall, the study indicates that the coronavirus pandemic did not increase–and may even have reduced–the affective polarization among Americans, even though survey respondents believed that the pandemic had divided Americans. The research suggests that crises such as a global pandemic may increase political unity, even if it, at the same time, stimulates people to take actions based on their partisanship (e.g., partisan responding to the crisis).

Are Bipartisan Lawmakers More Effective? 

Congress has become increasingly polarized, leaving little middle ground in the ideological center, yet recent evidence suggests that bipartisanship has continued even if somewhat diminished. How do the electoral incentives against bipartisanship square with the continuation of bipartisanship in lawmaking? In an IPR working paper, Harbridge-Yong and her colleagues assess whether there are direct legislative benefits from engaging in bipartisan activities by looking at the relationship between members’ records of working across the aisle and their effectiveness at lawmaking. The researchers analyze the Legislative Effectiveness Scores (LES) of every member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate who served in the 93rd–114th Congresses between 1973–2016 and track how often their bills drew in co-sponsors from the opposing party. LES is a measure of how successful elected officials are at advancing their legislative agenda by introducing bills, receiving action in committee, passing in it in their chamber, and ultimately becoming law. The authors find that bipartisanship works, and members who gain support from legislators across the aisle as co-sponsors on their bills are more successful at moving them through committee and into law. Being a bipartisan co-sponsor also puts legislators in the position of receiving more bipartisan support for their own agenda. The researchers propose that if lawmakers want to be more effective, one way is to become more bipartisan in their legislative coalitions.