Party Polarization and Congressional Approval

Ezra Klein is back with a piece relating the terrible approval to Congress with Congressional polarization.

“To make a slightly more serious point here, there’s a structural reason Congress is so much less popular than any other major institution in American life: It’s divided against itself. People often like their own representatives, and they even like the members of Congress from their party. But if you’re a Republican who voted for Republicans in Congress you’re angry because the Democrats control the Senate. If you’re a Democrat who voted for Democrats for Congress you’re angry because of the House Republicans…This house-divided problem wasn’t such an issue in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s because the two parties really weren’t that divided. But as party polarization begins to take off in the 1980s and then accelerate in the decades thereafter, the public’s confidence in Congress plummets.”

I don’t think this connection is as obvious as Klein makes it out to be for a number of reasons. While it is true that Congress has become more polarized over the last 40 years,

it’s not obvious that this has been apparent to voters. As John Sides points out, regardless of whether Congress has actually polarized over the last 30 years, Americans don’t perceive that Congress is significantly more polarized today than it was 40 years ago.


Clearly, the perception of each party doesn’t really correlate with the actual ideological shifts over the past 40 years, which makes me less inclined to believe that polarization is what is causing low Congressional approval ratings. Furthermore, the specific reason the Klein provides–a Congress divided against itself–doesn’t really hold water: The last time Congress was divided against itself was between 1981 and 1987–and Congressional approval rose significantly.

congress still unpopular

If polarization plays a role, my guess is that the polarization of Congress has made the process of actually legislating more difficult. As Congress finds it more and more difficult to do its job, its approval rating sinks (even as Americans don’t perceive it as being any more polarized than it was 40 years ago).

However, I think there are a lot of other factors at play that could have impacted Congressional approval ratings over the last 40 years besides polarization, and I would have to see a lot more convincing evidence than the assertions made by Klein before I would be inclined to blame polarization. (Among the other factors that could be impacting Congressional approval, I would include the proliferation of new forms of political media, the expansion of the visibility of the government [Social Security, Medicare, etc], lower rates of economic growth in the latter half of the 20th century, increased income inequality, etc.)


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