A House Divided: New research shows this is the most polarized Congress since the Civil War

But how did it get this bad?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The United States Congress hasn’t been this polarized since the North and South faced off against each other in the Civil War, and it won’t get better any time soon.

That’s according to Keith Poole, a political scientist and Philip H. Alston Jr. Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia.  

Poole and NYU professor of politics Howard Rosenthal collected every roll call vote dating back to the very first Congress in 1789. That’s a lot of votes.

The two political scientists used the data to create a kind of ideological roadmap, plotting House and Senate votes along the political spectrum.

What did they find? Our legislative branch hasn’t been this polarized in 130 years.

The new great divide didn’t happen overnight, says Poole. But it took a little while for other academia—and the media—to catch on.

“I think that Howard and I are surprised that is has continued as to the extent that it has,” he says.

But how did it get THIS bad? Poole attributes it in part to the Great Recession, and the country’s struggle to recover. He argues that a stable economy is necessary for deal-making, facilitating compromise and negotiations.

Yes, the unemployment rate has held steady and is back at “pre-recession levels”, but Poole emphasizes one very important statistic—the workforce participation rate. 

“Given the fact that we’re down now to a participation rate—a labor force participating rate that has fallen all the way down to what it was in the 1970s…until that starts to turn around, I don’t see the economy really dramatically improving,” he says.

But it’s not just the numbers. Political activists from both parties are contributing to the polarization.

“They just regard the other side as morally deficient. And so it makes it extremely difficult to get people elected like the old leaders of the past who were able to broker deals,” Poole adds.


A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found similar results. According to the survey, when Americans see the political battles between President Obama and Republicans in Congress, roughly half said they preferred the two sides compromised when they come to the negotiating table. But a vocal minority at the farther end of the political spectrum want their side to get 90 percent or more of what they ask for.

One solution to the polarization problem that’s been floated around is redistricting, which would make it tougher for those Congressmen who face little to no opposition in their districts to get re-elected.

Poole disagrees and believes that we’re unlikely to see any major changes in which party holds the House until after the next census. Despite the attention redistricting has received, the parties remain solidly split between Republicans in rural areas and Democrats urban ones

“Redistricting only makes a difference maybe in eight seats in the House of Representatives, if that. It’s something that the press keeps grabbing onto. We debunked it,”. says Poole

Keith Poole is a statistics guy, but he’s not encouraged by what those stats show.

“I’d like to be optimistic. But basically if you just look at the fiscal conditions of the country, it’s not clear to me that you can get the kind of compromises you need to take care of our serious problems,” he concludes.

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