I've not been blogging for a LONG time. I've just been too busy and I'm not sure I had anything particularly insightful to say. But gross mischaracterizations of what is happening in the political universe always tend to get me writing again. So ... thank you Chris Cillizza!
Cillizza posted some great charts on ideological polarization put together by the National Journal Vote Ratings.
Chris Cillizza argues that redistricting “plays a major role” in explaining this and implies this is the most important reason but then (grudgingly) says that “Self-sorting -- the growing tendency of people to live around like-minded people -- is also a major factor in the disappearance of the ideological middle in the House.”
Of course, then he shows the data from the Senate, where there is no redistricting, and the exact same thing has happened ... and the reason is “unknown.” That’s some pretty poor social science!
What he calls “self-sorting” is absolutely a big part of the story here though people not only move to where others like them live (remember, people are more mobile than they used to be) but people are more likely to think like others around them over time. In other words, we don’t just move; we tend to take on the ideological viewpoints of those near us over time.
But there are other reasons. The rise of 24-hour cable news and the rise of the internet have made compromise and deal-making more difficult. More speed and “sunshine” means less deliberation and wiggle-room for dealmakers. Changes to campaign finance rules (rise of soft money in the 80s followed by Super-PACs, etc.) and campaign finance practice (direct mail, rapid response, internet fundraising “moneybombs”) have also eroded the power of party leaders to shield members of Congress from primary challenges by more ideologically extreme members of their own party. At the same time, party leaders within the Congress (especially in the House but also in the Senate) have been given more power by their caucuses. This means more carrots and sticks these party leaders can use to punish members who defect on key votes.
Finally, liberal Republicans (particularly in the Northeast) found it harder and harder to win so as they retired or lost, they were replaced by liberal Democrats. Similarly, conservative Democrats (particularly in the South) also found it harder and harder to win so as they retired or lost (or, in a few cases, switched parties), they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Political scientists refer to this process as “replacement” as opposed to the argument that sitting members have become more conservative or more liberal over time because of the factors I discuss above (this is called “conversion”).
All of that is to say that Cillizza is just over-simplifying and lazy in his analysis on this at best and really just wrong at worst. Whether you believe this process has been caused more by conversion or replacement, redistricting is really just not a big part of this story.