Partisan Polarization and Conservative Groupthink

Matthew Yglesias gives an alternative explanation to CATO’s Julian Sanchez personal blog post about epistemic closure currently infesting the modern conservative movement.

A bit of background, and a quote from Sanchez:

I’ve written a bit lately about what I see as a systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement. As commenters have been quick to point out, of course, groupthink and confirmation bias are cognitive failings that we’re all susceptible to as human beings, and scarcely the exclusive province of the right. I try to acknowledge as much, and I’m often tempted to pluck some instances from the left just to show how very fair-minded and above the fray I am. (For instance, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to complaints about the coverage of the Tea Parties: Obviously there are both subtle and not-so-subtle bigots in the pack, but I doubt they’re representative, and it’s a huge leap to the dismissive suggestion that the phenomenon is nothing but a manifestation of racial anxiety.) Yet I can’t pretend that, on net, I really see an equivalence at present: As of 2010, the right really does seem to be substantially further down the rabbit hole. [emphasis by Yglesias]

tacomic-inside-hate-group-think-tank As Yglesias says, Sanchez tries to explain the problem in his own view but Yglesias writes that the left is simply more diverse due to it becoming the new big tent party compared to the right. The left still has its plethora of different interest groups while the right has become more monolithic.

I have to wonder if partisan polarization has anything to do with this. Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander and Matthew Gunning from Emory University wrote an article for the Journal of Politics that sought to figure out why campaign/election competition has died down in the last couple of decades and argued against the redistricting hypothesis, finding that districts have become safer for certain political parties—depending on region and district—due to both partisan polarization and incumbency.

The evidence presented in this article indicates that declining competition in U.S. House elections is explained by two major factors: a shift in the partisan composition of House districts and a decline in the ability of challengers to compete financially with incumbents. Since the 1970s, and especially since 1992, there has been a substantial increase in partisan polarization among House districts. The number of marginal districts has been declining while the number of districts that are safe for one party has been increasing. Redistricting appears to have little or nothing to do with this trend: almost all of the change in district partisanship has occurred between redistricting cycles.

Yglesias argues that groupthink exists on the left as well but because there are so many different interest groups—labor, immigrant rights, feminists, “green” types—on the left that it’s impossible to have wall to wall groupthink without, what I argue to be, a über-Herculean effort. The left couldn’t muster up the groupthink effort even for health care reform, with the center-left (e.g. Lincoln, Leiberman) and some special interest (e.g. Stupak and 12 disciples) Democrats in the House and Senate fighting passage or certain provisions all the way to the end.

I argue that partisan polarization has a lot to do with it. The conservative mantra has been so honed and fine-tuned that it’s become one for only one demographic and it’s subjected itself to a mostly southern geographical pinch. Partisan polarization will no doubt lead to groupthink in both local and a larger sense when so geographically concentrated.

This could actually spell trouble for the left. Quite a bit, if my always-pessimistic attitude is correct. Consider the changes in population in the last decade:


(US Census Bureau)

People are moving to the south and the west, talking with their feet. Indeed, it’s mostly in conservative states, especially when you look at it in percentage terms. Texas is seeing the largest growth, mostly due to the increasing job opportunities and stability of the economy whereas the northern states have seen heavy job losses.


It can be argued that people from the relatively more liberal north to the south might combat partisan polarization yet partisan polarization has occurred despite the population movement in the same time period. Granted, the more centrist/liberal people who moved from the north to the south may have attributed to the Democrats gaining as many center-left members in the House and Senate in traditionally safe districts in 2006 and 2008 however the overall trend has been political partisanship and the Democrats are likely to lose many of those seats in 2010. As Nate Silver explains:

Set aside the Republicans’ impressive figure for a moment. The Democrats’ enthusiasm total is actually a record. On the 13 previous occasions that Gallup asked this question in advance of a midterm, neither party registered a score higher than 56 points. The Democrats just checked in at 57. Very probably, some of this is a temporary bounce and will fade as memories of the health care legislation become more distant. Nevertheless, at least for the time being, Democrats are as enthusiastic as they’ve ever been in advance of any recent midterm.

Their big problem, of course, is that Republicans are even more enthusiastic: 69 percent of them say they’re more geeked than usual about the election. If the Democrats’ total was record-breaking, Republicans just blew the competition away in Usain Bolt type fashion.

The state of the economy and employment problems the people are facing will be the major factor however partisan polarization, combined with the power of incumbency, may return those disputed but relatively safe (for conservatives) districts back to conservatives for good.

Those center-left families who moved to the southern and western states in the last decade are likely going to be swallowed whole by groupthink. Who wouldn’t want to be friendly to their neighbor and come by for some pie? It would be hard to argue with one’s conservative neighbor in a conservative neighborhood evangelizing for a conservative vote in the next election while the liberal party is in control in Washington during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Partisan polarization will take hold, groupthink will swallow the center-left in those southern and western regions whole, and incumbency will lock those regions up for the conservatives until they screw up again. Perhaps 4 or 8 years of President Palin will incite enough riots in a future election much like the anti-Bush fervor of the 2008 election gave so much prominence to the Democratic Party. If we survive that long (think big red button with “nukuler” written on it).

Liberals can do something about this problem, though, by enacting campaign financing. Indeed, a big problem is incumbency and the weight of the gold-plated balls they swing around. Abramowitz, Alexander and Gunning puts the tail on the donkey:

The effects of increasing partisan polarization have been reinforced by the second trend uncovered by our study—the decreasing financial competitiveness of House challengers. Even in the remaining high-risk districts most challengers lack the financial resources needed to wage competitive campaigns. Whether this trend reflects growing ability of incumbents to deter strong challengers, growing reluctance of contributors to offend powerful incumbents, or some other set of factors is not clear. The reasons for the declining financial competitiveness of House challengers certainly should be explored in future research.

In doing some research for a paper on election reform, I’ve concluded that public financing and a move to a nation-wide PR-STV voting system would empower both election challengers and the voters. Take it Henry Farrell:

In PR-STV, the voter votes for the candidates, recording her order of preference (Farrell 1, Tucker 2, … Sides 6 and so on). The votes are then counted. If a candidate reaches the quota with first preference votes, then she is deemed elected, and her surplus votes are distributed to other candidates, according to the second preferences recorded on them. If no candidate reaches the quota with her first preference votes, then the weakest candidate is eliminated, and his votes are distributed to the other candidates according to the second preferences, and so on, until all the vacant seats have been filled.

Tyler Cowen wrote:

Most countries don’t use range voting. Ireland and Tasmania have had some experience with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. What happens is that a bunch of candidates run for each post, party identification is weak, and reps emphasize constituency service. That’s probably the major dominant effect, namely that most systems of range voting weaken political parties.

Farrell disagrees however, despite my perpetually pessimistic attitude, a ray of hope is shining through.


4 thoughts on “Partisan Polarization and Conservative Groupthink

  1. Pingback: Can the GOP Make the Tea Party Work?

  2. I live in Mississippi, and you just insulted an awful lot of my expatriot neighbors. I know several Northerners and Westerners who have moved to my state, many living here for decades, and all of them are as staunhcly liberal as when they moved. Percentage-wise, they're simply don't form a big enough percentage of any one voting district to swing the vote.

  3. I don't see how there was any insult whatsoever. If you contend that accusing them of being susceptible to group think is insulting, consider also that group think happens irrespective of who is in question–whether liberal, conservative or independent; intellectuals themselves tend to fall to group think as well, forgetting to think outside of the box.It's very difficult to look at the state of the economy and watch the news, especially news concentrating on the controversy in Washington more than the actual guts of the issues, and argue against conservative neighbors who champion the liberals in power are behind the problem. Your typical Joe doesn't have the time or resources–and often the interest–to keep up with the politics and the policies. The general public tends to rely on the news more than they ideally should but that can't be helped. People prefer to spend time with their families and friends than dig through hundred and thousand page long legislation bills or at least professional analysis of these bills. They'd rather hit the blogs or watch Fox News or MSNBC, which ever flavor they prefer, and get only an 1/n-th of the story.It's not intended to be an insult that people have different priorities and fail to get a full grasp of issues; people are always susceptible to false or misinterpreted testimony–susceptible due to lack of good information or will to find it. It's simply a fact of life.

  4. Pingback: Citizens, United

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