Just How Polarized is the US Congress?

By Walter Kurtz, Sober Look

The public is often amazed at Washington’s inability to solve problems. Some have attributed that constant impasse to polarization in Congress – with very little overlap in attitudes across the party lines. But is this truly something new or just more media hype?

The data seems to indicate that polarization is definitely sharper now than in the past and is particularly acute in the House of Representatives.

Here is the level of “ideological overlap” twenty years ago:


And here it is now (notice the bump on the very right of the Republican Party):


The US Senate is also more polarized than in the past but not nearly as strongly as the House. The question of course is whether this polarization level is unique or have the parties been this divided in the past? According to Voteview.com, the polarization is at record levels since at least the end of the Civil War – even in the Senate.


Furthermore, the number of so-called “moderates” in each party is near record lows.


Those looking for a quick resolution to the pressing budged problems, don’t bet on it. Washington’s perpetual impasse is here to stay.


Got a comment or question about this post? Feel free to use the Ask Cullen section, leave a comment in the forum or send me a message on Twitter.
Sober Look

Sober Look

Sober Look was founded by Walter Kurtz, a New York based hedge fund manager and credit markets specialist.

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  • Frederick

    Not surprisingly, the sphere of politics is muddied by people who can’t put down their politics to see the world objectively. Same problem as the previous post. Sucks.

  • Indignado

    Having additional party/s in the U.S. would go a long way into solving this deadlock IMO. However, it seems pretty clear that there are a number of forces against such party/s to gain seats in congress.

    For all of the shortcomings in European democracies (and there are quite a few), many of the national parliamentarian systems allow for more effective government decision making. Various parties from smaller groups are forced to negotiate with larger parties (and vice versa) to get a majority to pass legislation.

    IMO having more parties would allow for more vibrant debate about economic and political policy making. A much needed breath of fresh air indeed.

  • El Viejo

    The more predictable – the more able to be replaced with a computer.

  • liberal

    “However, it seems pretty clear that there are a number of forces against such party/s to gain seats in congress.”

    It’s well understood in the poli sci literature that there’s a single explanation that explains this: the fact that we have a first-past-the-post voting system. In fact there’s a “theorem” that in such a system, electoral politics will evolve towards a two-party system.

    In Britain, they have three parties despite also having FPTP, but three isn’t much larger than two, and in the British system you can see all the pathologies of FPTP on display.

  • Rich R

    #1)Gerrymandering of districts allows each party to appeal to their most extreme elements, rather than finding common ground.

    #2)Lobbying (by corporate citizens, etc) makes the “representative” captured my moneyed interests

    #3) 24 hour “Infotainment” media enflames biases/idealogy by creating and propogating “That’s outrageous !” stories for ratings.

  • liberal

    Rich R wrote, “#1)Gerrymandering of districts allows each party to appeal to their most extreme elements, rather than finding common ground.”

    That’s way too easy on the Republicans. Everything I’ve read says that the Democrats would have to poll an extra 5% nationally to make the House even.

  • liberal

    “Furthermore, the number of so-called “moderates” in each party is near record lows.”

    Yawn. Mann and Ornstein looked into this. Most of the effect is due to the Republicans moving to the right. There’s some empirical data showing the Dems moving to the left also, but that’s mostly as a result of Southern right-wing whites moving their party affiliation from Dem to Rep.

    There _is_ a moderate party. It’s called the “Democratic Party.” It’s a moderate center/center-left party. There’s also an extreme party, the “Republican Party.” It’s an extreme right-wing party. Deal with it, and give up the “both sides are the problem” nonsense.

  • http://brown-blog-5.blogspot.com/ Tom Brown

    Districts boundaries should be determined by an algorithm designed with these considerations in mind:

    1. Districts must have equal populations (as much as possible… clearly some states only have a single district… and those might not be of equal population.
    2. Districts must be contiguous (no district split into pieces)
    3. The ratio of the perimeter to the area should be minimized… provided that…
    4. Natural and man-made boundaries and thoroughfares are accounted for (highways, rivers, mountain ridges, etc.)

    I live in California, and my Democratic representative had one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. It’s more competitive now. However, I think you’d get a lot of push back from the Dems over a plan like this too. I’m actually sympathetic to your overall argument here, but I don’t think it’d be easy to undo gerrymandering in places where it benefits either party.

    Personally I think it’s time to redo the state boundaries with the same objective: Make all 50 states equal in population. Thus all senators are representing the same number of people. Either that or start assigning more senators to the more populous states.

    If people were highly committed to their political parties, gerrymandering could be defeated by a migration of voters. If Mississippi has an excess of Republicans, they could send their extra out to colonize battle ground states. Likewise for Democrats in California and New York: they could send out their extra to colonize a half dozen low population Red states and change their color (and claim their senators!). The result would probably be similar to the Kansas wars of the mid 19th century! Ha!


  • http://brown-blog-5.blogspot.com/ Tom Brown

    Although I think David Stockman is off base in recommending we re-adopt the gold standard and in his assessment of Fed activities in general, I do think he has some interesting proposals to try and reduce the effects of crony capitalism. These include limits on campaigning, fully state financed campaigns, changing the terms of congressman and the president, etc.

  • jaymaster

    Many people consider this a feature, not a bug!


  • Lance

    The reason is blindingly obvious, and that is the use of computerized data crunching to take Gerrymandering to a level no one could previously imagine. The seats are all pretty safe, on both sides, so no need to work together, because competition comes from within your own party at primary time, for the most part. The solution? The Constitution needs an amendment, I’m afraid, and mathematicians are going to have to get involved in writing it. Basically what that amendment will have to do is prevent state legislatures from drawing Congressional districts in bizarre shapes. Perhaps some type of computer program will need to be used, the same one in every state, to keep the shapes of districts as close to a regular polygon (a circle would be best, but unworkable) as possible. The formula, off the top of my head, would set some kind of limit on the maximum ratio of the distance from the geographical center of any district to its farthest reach versus the shortest distance between the geographical center and an edge. No more 150 mile by 1 mile districts; no more horseshoe-shaped districts in the middle of cities; a lot less bullshit. US population is not evenly distributed of course, but it is much, much, much more evenly distributed than the convoluted maps of Congressional districts would suggest. I know … good luck with that idea. But it’s workable, and the alternative is what we’ve got now.

  • Andrew P

    I don’t see that Parliamentary systems have better governance. If anything, they are more dysfunctional with calling early elections and all that. Also, comparing a tiny EU State to the US Federal Government is like comparing a cherry to a pineapple. If you want to compare apples to apples, you need to compare jurisdictions of comparable size. The political parties in most US States can work together at the State level much more effectively than they can at the Federal level.

  • Andrew P

    The UK is not strictly “first past the post”, only partially, so there is room for 3 parties – especially since there is a regionality to their partisan divides.

    The US is not only FPTP, but has 2 distinct sovereign levels – State and Federal. So any 3rd parties that can exist at the State or regional level get weeded out at the Federal level.

  • Andrew P

    Gerrymandering is overrated. It may be effective for a couple of election cycles, but if gerrymandering was soooo good, how did the sweeps of 2006, 2008, and 2010 happen? Why were the results in those years so different from 2004 and 2002 – with the identical district boundaries? Gerrymandering works until the board is reset by a wave election.

  • Andrew P

    Maybe its the period from 1929 to 1990 that is the aberration. The civil war was obviously a very polarized time, and after that there were epic battles over distribution of wealth (free silver, cross of gold, union movement, progressives, etc..) The political parties were in fierce competition. Then the Great Depression put the Democrats solidly in charge. There was no more fierce competition for power since the Democrats were overwhelmingly dominant. When everyone knows their place in the pecking order there will be less partisanship. After Reagan, the parties became more equal in strength again, and fierce competition for dominance resumed. Since a fundamental part of the competition for dominance is remaking the landscape in your party’s favor, that is why we had the epic fight over Obamacare, a fight that is still going on. That is why parties gerrymander when they are lucky enough to control a State in a “0” year. Everything is about entrenching interests who are incentivized to vote for you in the future and ensuring that your side can punch above its weight.

  • Andrew P

    That is only because the Democrats are naturally concentrated in places (big cities) where their added numbers do no good in House races. The Voting Rights Act is actually the GOP’s best friend here, since it requires Black majority districts whenever one can be drawn. If it wasn’t for the VRA (and geographic concentration), would there be so many districts that vote >90% for Democrats? I think not.

  • Andrew P

    Redrawing State boundaries would defeat the whole idea of States in the first place. The USA is a Federal Union of States. States are not mere administrative districts. And redrawing a State boundary requires agreement of both the Congress and the State legislatures – obviously impossible without a new constitution.

    An easier way to gerrymander State level partisanship is immigration – and that is going on right now. By importing immigrants of reliable partisanship into a State of the opposite partisanship you can flip the state’s partisanship. And just think of what the Democrats could accomplish if Israel lost its perpetual war and had to be suddenly evacuated – and they moved all the evacuees to say Texas.

  • Nils

    Well there’s the Green Party and the Libertarian party, seems like the Whigs have fallen out of favor.

    Wasn’t it that the Democrats and Republicans once where one party?