Does partisan conflict damage citizens’ perceptions of Congress? If so, why has polarization increased in Congress since the 1970s? To address these questions, we unpack the “electoral connection” by exploring the mass public’s attitudes towards partisan conflict via two survey experiments in which we manipulated characteristics of members and Congress. We find that party conflict reduces confidence in Congress among citizens across the partisan spectrum. However, there exists heterogeneity by strength of party identification with respect to evaluations of members. Independents and weak partisans are more supportive of members that espouse a bipartisan image, whereas strong partisans are less supportive. People with strong attachments to a political party disavow conflict in the aggregate but approve of individual members behaving in a partisan manner. This pattern helps us understand why members in safely partisan districts engage in partisan conflict even though partisanship damages the collective reputation of the institution.
Their findings come from experiments conducted in a
2010 2008 survey. Here is one experiment. Democrats and Republicans were asked to evaluate a member of Congress from their party (Bud Cramer (D-AL) and Steve LaTourette (R-OH), respectively). Independents were randomly assigned to evaluate either Cramer or LaTourette.
Some respondents heard that this member behaved in a partisan manner in 2007. Other respondents heard that this member behaved in a bipartisan manner in 2006. (In fact, both statements were true, based on the actual behavior of Cramer and LaTourette.) How did this affect views of these two members? Here is the key graph:
Independents and weak partisans evaluate the member more favorably when his bipartisanship is noted than when his partisanship is noted. But strong partisans have the opposite reaction: they approve of the member less when he acts in a bipartisan manner.
Harbridge and Malhotra note that this creates a paradox:
…voters’ displeasure with discord in Congress as a macro-level institution is due to their support of those same behaviors performed at the micro-level by members of that institution. Simply put, citizens disapprove of Congress because it is comprised of officials with characteristics they like.
In other words, some voters want members to be hardcore partisans even as they expect Congress to be a paradise of bipartisan cooperation. So if voters want to identify why “Congress” behaves so badly, perhaps they should consider the wisdom of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”