Polarized preferences versus polarizing policies

Abstract

Much of contemporary political debate in the United States focuses on the issue of polarization: specifically, its causal antecedents and its consequences for policymaking and political conflict. In this article, we argue that partisan preference polarization—conventionally defined as the difference in the favored policy positions of legislators from the two major parties—is not a sufficient statistic for potential political conflict in national politics . Rather, a well-defined measure of potential conflict must take into account (1) the locations of status quo policies and proposed alternatives; and (2) the shape of underlying utility functions. We propose measures of the likely contentiousness of a given status quo policy and of a proposal to move that policy. We then demonstrate the usefulness of these measures using estimates of utility function and final passage vote parameters on enacted legislation from the 111th US Senate (2009–2011).

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We do not distinguish here between the preferences of the legislature and those of the citizenry more broadly. Of course, it could be the case that a policy gridlocked away from \(x^{*}\) might be better from the standpoint of the citizenry than \(x^{*}\) itself. To the extent that we are endeavoring to measure potential conflict among legislators, however, \(x^{*}\) remains a relevant quantity.

  2. 2.

    Note that one could make two modeling choices in the context of a more fully specified game involving such transfers. First, one could assume the possibility of direct utility transfers among individuals. Second, one could explicitly model monetary transfers, as in canonical models of vote buying (e.g., Groseclose and Snyder 1996; Snyder 1991). Since our purpose is not to study a particular game, we need not commit to either approach.

  3. 3.

    Note also that the relationship is not “if and only if”—the two mRP measures could be equal at local minima in a social welfare function that is not globally concave.

  4. 4.

    In equilibrium, the proposer, in trading off the benefits of the policy shift and the cost of transfers, typically will moderate her proposal away from her own ideal point. Insofar as we are considering transfers associated with any proposal, that behavior is immaterial to our derivation. Likewise, we do not explicitly consider the strategic consequences of counteroffers by proponents of \(x^{\circ }\), which generally will increase the number of legislators to whom a proposer might make transfers above those necessary to achieve q (Groseclose and Snyder 1996). One may regard the quantity q as a reduced form representation capturing both formal legislative rules and such strategic considerations.

  5. 5.

    The more prosaic reason for using the 111th Senate is that we wish to avoid the temptation to “cherry-pick” a Congress that best demonstrates the value of our approach. The 111th Senate, it turns out, is the demonstration dataset included with the statistical package we employ to derive the inputs to our measures. We leave the task of comparisons across different Senates to future research.

  6. 6.

    The mean posterior ideal point also diverges from \(x^{*}\), albeit by a smaller amount.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Catherine Hafer and Howard Rosenthal for numerous clarifying discussions. Gordon gratefully acknowledges the New York University School of Law, where he is a scholar in residence for 2017–2018.

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Correspondence to Sanford C. Gordon.

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Gordon, S.C., Landa, D. Polarized preferences versus polarizing policies. Public Choice 176, 193–210 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-018-0530-8

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Keywords

  • Polarization
  • Political conflict
  • U.S. Congress