We’ve all heard that Congress is polarized, with gridlock between ultraliberals and extreme conservatives. Many in the media, including Jerry Seib writing in the Wall Street Journal, claim Congressional moderates are an endangered species. He argues that because centrist Democrats were defeated in the Senate in 2014, cooperation will become difficult, if not impossible.
“There been a lot of academic studies that show that is greater polarization in Congress now than there’s ever family since reconstruction,’ Seib suggests, “fewer moderates fewer people in the center.”
John Sides with the Washington Post’s respected politics site “Monkey Cage,” agrees: “Imagine that you’re a state legislator thinking about running for Congress. The polarization in Congress is pretty apparent to you. Democratic members are increasingly liberals and Republican members are increasingly conservative. But here’s the problem: you don’t fit that pattern. You’re a moderate. What will you do?”
Sides cites research from Duke University political scientist Danielle Thomsen, whose survey from 1998 finds that moderates, especially centrist Republicans, are more hesitant to run for office than ideological partisans. Her studies from 2000 to 2010 supported these findings.
Rep.Lynn Westmoreland (R-Georgia) confirmed the polarization of Congress in a talk to my students. “In 2010, the Congressional representatives that our party got elected were more conservative than the Republicans in the House of Representatives,” Westmoreland said earlier this month. “The same year, the Democrats who were elected were more liberal than the average Democrat serving in the House as well.”
But does the evidence support the supposed death of the moderate?
I examined voting records of members of Congress, from the House and Senate, over the last 40 years, using data from the American Conservative Union (ACU), which calculates these scores by examining votes on more than two dozen key bills. Moderates were defined as a representative or senator who voted more than 25 percent with the opposing political party (scoring between 25 and 75 on a scale of 0 (pure liberal) to 100 (pure conservative).
Using these methods, you can see that in 1975 and 1985, moderates made up roughly a third of Congress. But by 1995, that number dwindled to 24 percent, and fell another nine percentage points to 15 percent in 2005.
But then, something remarkable happened. Moderates made a comeback in 2015. The percentage of moderate voting in Congress jumped up seven percentage points from 2005 to 2015.
How could this be the case, given all of the other studies and other anecdotal evidence? First of all, many stories on the subject rely more on speculation than on quantitative data. Second, many of the studies were undertaken well before 2015, whereas this work relies upon the most recent information. Third, studies like Thomsen’s asked a different question, determining whether a moderate felt comfortable in running, not in voting scores of members of Congress. Those concerns can still persist, even if Congress becomes more centrist.
Why do our findings matter? This new information provides hope that some bipartisan deals can still be struck this coming year, and the atmosphere may not be as toxic as previously assumed. It provides a rare optimistic note as we head into the 2017 legislative session full of uncertainty.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.