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Polarization, Inequality, and the State Legislatures

July 2016

Renee O’Connell


This article addresses the poorly understood question of what causes political polarization in state politics. The authors acknowledge commonly cited yet relatively unsupported theories of state polarization and propose their own ideas. One common explanation for polarization in states is that redistricting creates a number of “safe seats”, or districts that will almost guarantee a candidate of a certain party, which in turn allows candidates to focus on pleasing the party rather than attracting a wider range of constituents. However, districts drawn by bipartisan commissions see similar levels of polarization as gerrymandered districts. Another theory used to explain polarization in state politics is that closed primary elections (which only allow registered party members to vote) elicit participation from the most polarized voters, which in turn produces the most polarized candidates. However, research found that ideological differences between registered and nonregistered voters were minimal. Because there is minimal data supporting the idea that party primaries or redistricting are encouraging more polarized candidates, the authors propose that polarization is a function of the party elites who have become more polarized. Authors used data from all 50 states from the years 2006 and 2013, and conducted this study using the Shor-McCarty Individual State Legislator Ideology Data.

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Policy Implications

The recent polarization in American politics results primarily from increased homogeneity of political parties and not from a shift in the electorate. Perhaps this gives hope to the idea that Americans are not increasingly pitting themselves against one another, but merely the incentives for our representatives to follow party lines have become more compelling. A primary finding of this study was that lower levels of income inequality led to increased polarity. Although this contrasts current rhetoric at the national level, there may be adequate reasoning for the difference in the impact of economic disparity at the state and local level. Perhaps at the national level, income inequality is more of an ideological and partisan issue, while at the state level, the onus is on producing solutions to specific and tangible economic issues that demand bipartisan cooperation. The authors also noted that when the party in control of the state legislature controlled a larger percentage of the seats, the polarization decreased.

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