Don’t blame the American public for the D.C. deadlock

by Andrew Gelman on August 17, 2011 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Policy,Political Economy

Tom Ferguson writes:

After this summer’s exhausting budget and debt ceiling follies, everyone who can turn on a TV knows that Congress is sharply polarized along party lines. But most pundits are way off on what causes it.  As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, too many of them miss political money’s pivotal role in creating disastrous deadlock. The evidence for this isn’t conjectural. It’s in the data for any who care to look.

Virtually all polls, including those of organizations like CBS that poll with the New York Times, acknowledge that public support for cutting Social Security and Medicare is minuscule and that the “no new taxes” posture assumed by Republicans and some Democrats is repudiated even by most members of the Tea Party (for more polls, seeherehere, and here). The public is not sharply divided on these issues. Quite the contrary.

But on Sunday, a Times analyst once again tried to lay the blame for D.C. gridlock on the public. Brushing aside the importance of political money, Sheryl Stolberg instead recycled familiar arguments from various analysts who argue that you and I are responsible: “If Americans want to know why their elected officials can’t compromise… perhaps they ought to look in the mirror.”

Analysts and reporters need to stop looking in mirrors and start scrutinizing data. There is little evidence that Congressional polarization is rooted in sharp differences in public sentiment. . . .


What is going on, then?
As I [Ferguson] recently pointed out in the Financial Times, a tidal wave of political cash that emerged in the 1970s has washed away the remnants of the old seniority system in Congress, drastically changing the way that body operates. In its place, Congress now uses a system of “posted prices” for selecting who serves on committees and assumes leadership positions. Individual members of Congress compete for key slots by raising enormous amounts of money not only for themselves, but for the national congressional and senatorial campaign committees. These are controlled by Congressional party leaders. The leaders’ control of these committees, along with the vast fixed investments in research, polling, and media capabilities these committees maintain, gives them more leverage over individual Congressmen and women. It makes crossing party lines far more costly than, for example, in the nineteen fifties.

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