Are Elections Fueling Polarization in the House of Representatives? (with Andrew B. Hall)

By Kevin R. Kosar November 7, 2022

The subject of this episode is, “Are elections fueling polarization in the House of Representatives?”

Polarization in Congress is a well-documented fact of life. This is particularly true on high salience issues, such as immigration and abortion. Yet the tendency of legislators to reflexively oppose policy ideas offered by the other party has bled into other, more prosaic issues. For example, in late 2021 an infrastructure bill became a bone of political contention. Republicans who voted for it were denounced by their colleagues. Nevermind the fact that the legislation might actually do good for these legislators’ constituents.

Why are there so many hard left and hard right members of our national legislature? To help us think through this issue, my guest is Andrew B. Hall, a political scientist at Stanford University. Dr. Hall has published many articles on elections and representation and is the author of Who Wants to Run?: How the Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization (Chicago, 2019).

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our Republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be. And that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation.

I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington DC.

Andy, welcome to the podcast.

Andrew Hall:

Excited to be here. Thank you.

Kevin Kosar:

If I had a dollar given to me every time somebody said, “Congress is polarized because Americans are polarized,” I’d have enough bucks to take a really good vacation. The idea that America has become the land of red states and blue states, with right wing rural folks and left wing city folks, has become pretty popular. You see references to it in the press all the time. So that prompts the question—we have a polarized Congress: are voters the reason we have a polarized Congress?

Andrew Hall:

It’s a very reasonable question. I don’t think it has nothing to do with it. I do think it’s true that some Americans have become quite polarized. Obviously, we see it play out with things like the rural-urban divide that you’re talking about. But I think that there’s a really important fallacy that a lot of people don’t always think through when they think about Congress polarizing, which is that there’s absolutely no guarantee that any change or non-change in people’s opinions, will map into what congressional candidates or members of Congress say or do, because there’s this intermediate step which is really important—who actually decides to stand up and run for Congress? If the people who decide to run are just systematically different from what the voters at large want, then unfortunately, what people want or what they think or how they think or how polarized they are may not have any reflection in what options they’re actually presented to vote on.

So—to get back to your question itself—I think it’s of course true that people are polarizing to some degree. I think it’s vastly overstated. And when you look into evidence on most salient policy issues, it turns out that there’s a large chunk of Americans caught in the middle, who find both parties unpopular, and who don’t like the positions being espoused by lots of salient political officials on either side. But the people who actually run for Congress are polarizing super dramatically, so the voters are not being given a lot of opportunities to vote for the types of people they would prefer, who might actually be more moderate.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, if this is not a bottom up phenomenon, if it’s not the case that the average American has a really intense view one way or another on all sorts of issues, like updating the Electoral Count Act of 1887—on which we had a party-line vote in the House the other week. If that’s not the issue, a polarized public driving everything, then is this about the political parties? Are the political parties simply recruiting candidates who are on the extreme left or extreme right?

Andrew Hall:

I don’t think that aren’t part of the story. I think parties are driven by the kinds of people who are willing to spend a lot of time on party-related activities. And those people are not going to be very representative of the public at large. They’re going to be particularly passionate people, who might have more extreme views, and so they may want to go out and recruit candidates who fit their viewpoints. That certainly could be part of it. The thing I always like to emphasize though is that the word “party” carries a lot of connotations that don’t make sense in the US system. The parties in the US are extremely weak. They don’t really have a lot of carrots or sticks to offer people who are running or who have decided to run. For example, one of the most important things—that not everyone knows—is that anyone can run for office and say they’re a Republican or a Democrat. The parties are feckless to define what it even means to be a member of the party because of this completely open system that we have.

If you look to parliamentary systems in Europe, the party can actually define who’s on the ballot and even—in some places—order them or kick someone off if they’re not reflective of what the party wants. That’s just not how our system works. So when we think about the parties running candidates in the US, they just don’t have that much to offer. They can beg people to run for them and they can certainly link them up with resources that help them run—such as campaign finance or other types of advising—and that definitely makes a difference, so I don’t want to say they do nothing. But at the end of the day, they both struggle to convince people to run, because it’s not a very appealing job.

They’re also powerless to prevent people from running, which is—of course—most famously what we saw with Donald Trump, who was in no way a Republican, and who the Republican Party at large did not want to run in 2016. And yet look what happened. But more generally, they’re not that powerful at determining who runs. So, if we want to explain the set of people who do run, especially for Congress—which is a lower salient office compared to president—we need to look to other explanations besides just party recruitment.

Kevin Kosar:

If the parties are not these powerful entities that can screen out people, at least not in the US context, what about the primaries: this process by which you have a low turnout election, often in the summertime, where if you’re a Democratic voter you get a ballot and it lists only Democrats. And if you’re a Republican voter, you get a ballot that lists only Republicans. And if you’re an Independent or something else, you either can’t vote or you have to declare yourself for one party or another, which is frequently the case. Is this creating a self-selection process? Are primaries driving extremism in Congress and, therefore, polarization?

Andrew Hall:

I definitely think primaries are part of the story, and the reason I think they’re part of the story is that I think there’s a general phenomenon in American politics across a wide range of contexts where more extreme people care more and are more willing to show up, do stuff, and speak loudly. If we look across the entire system—whether it’s showing up at local city council meetings, tweeting relentlessly about your political views, or voting in a primary—we’ve created a system where, at almost every phase of every important part of the process, these small groups of people with extreme views are massively empowered relative to the rest of us, which I think is hugely problematic. I think primaries are a good example of this, where the set of people who turn out is a very, very small slice of the electorate. The turnout rates are remarkably small and it seems like they do have very different views, on average, from the rest of us. That can create and complicate incentives. One thing it does—which is related to what I think is going on—is it might give a more moderate candidate pause in thinking whether to run for office or not because they might not look forward to having to survive a bruising primary against someone who might be more naturally popular with this small primary electorate.

On the other hand, if I had to rank order the different parts of the system that are giving advantages to more extreme people, I wouldn’t rank primaries as high as conventional wisdom might suggest. That’s because primaries are really complicated, and there’s a lot going on in primaries that’s not ideological. If we look across the country, we can find lots of cases where, in fact, the more extreme person—the more culture wars-type person, whether on the left or the right—isn’t actually the one who succeeds in the primary. These advantages are not deterministic. I think a really good example—whenever you see one of these exaggerated newspaper articles about how primaries are fueling polarization—is trying to explain how Brad Raffensperger won his primary in Georgia, because I think that would’ve been just a textbook case for why supposedly the primary voters should have voted him out—because Trump didn’t like him. Yet, that’s not what happened, so I think the story’s more complicated.

The thing I always like to remind people is that there’s hundreds and hundreds of primaries each cycle, and most people are not paying attention to House primaries. The news only seizes on a few really wild and salient ones, but there’re lots of other ones where who wins and who loses is complicated and doesn’t really fit with a nice, clean ideological story.

Kevin Kosar:

Yes, when I talk about primaries with folks who are not political scientists or politics geeks, I like to remind them that in Ohio, my home state—a bellwether state—only 25% of voters are registered with either party. But Ohio has a system where if you’re an Independent, you can vote in the primary. Nonetheless, last time around in the Senate primary, only about one in five voters bothered to show up because it’s in the middle of the summertime and that’s just not where your brain is at in the summer—to go out to the voting booth to go vote in a primary.

Andrew Hall:

This is why I’m pretty pessimistic on all of these reforms to primaries themselves. One of the things people have talked about is opening up primaries versus having them closed, which means, do you require party registration to vote in the primary or not? In theory, opening it up should allow a broader set of people to vote and nominate maybe a more moderate candidate. In practice, whenever we’ve looked at that empirically, nothing happens because you just don’t move on the margin. You don’t get any more people to turn out when you set the rules up one way or another because—in either case—there’s a small set of people who care a lot and will show up no matter what, and a broader set of people who don’t care enough or are not willing to pay the cost of figuring out how to vote in this primary. So it’s much harder than we think to break some of these links between being a more extreme, passionate person about politics and being the ones who are willing to do all the extra work that makes politics move.

Kevin Kosar:

And on your point about it being more complicated when thinking about primaries and why the results are as they are, we can’t forget about the factor of money: the extent to which primaries have become places where dark money and various PACs—from out-of-state frequently, out-of-district—are just pouring resources in to stoke the image of one candidate and to trash the image of the other candidate. That’s just advertising, that doesn’t have anything to do with where people are at emotionally and how it aligns with ideology can be pretty messy. For example, there are some hard right dollars flowing into campaigns that are supporting folks who aren’t necessarily hard right—they just happen to be the favorite of that interest group.

Andrew Hall:

Yeah. Actually, it’s really interesting you brought that up, because we’re pretty close to finishing—I think in the next month or two—a study of this issue of out-of-state money, so just to give you a few thoughts on what we’ve found. First of all, I think everyone who monitors this knows it’s been going up and up over time, but one thing that I don’t think has been fully appreciated is how much the pandemic seems to have shifted it even further. There’s a massive acceleration in 2020, in the amount of money that’s coming from out-of-state. This is not even dark money by the way. This is just standard FEC donations to candidates. Part of the reason we think that—we’re finding in our study at least, of why—it’s going up so much, is that changes to the media environment and especially the internet and online fundraising have made it much easier to raise money from out-of-state.

If you think about how that’s changing elections, obviously the preferences of those out-of-state donors might be quite different. In addition, the way I’m always thinking about these things is in terms of who is then willing to run. If you know that these campaigns are going to be driven by the types of people who can get onto cable news or run online ads that get them out-of-state money, then you might think it’s going to affect who’s willing to run in the first place. Maybe—as a centrist person—I know in advance that I’m not the type of person who’s easily going to be able to raise that out-of-state money because I don’t excite the out-of-state donors as much. I don’t have a national leading profile. That could be an important part of this phenomenon.

Kevin Kosar:

Excellent, I look forward to seeing that research.

So it’s time for the big reveal. Partisan polarization in Congress. If the public is not the overwhelming cause, if the parties and their selection of candidates are not the main cause, and if primaries are not the big factor, then what does your research indicate?

Andrew Hall:

My research is about how the whole package that we’ve built—in terms of how Congress works and how our elections work—is not set up to make the job of being in Congress appealing to the vast majority of people, including most centrist, more pragmatic types of people.

There’s a lot of reasons for this, but some of the main factors I would point to are on the congressional side: the fact that Congress has been systematically shifting over the last few decades in a way that gives more and more energy and the power to drive legislation forward to a pretty small set of party leader actors and taking that away from members of Congress at large. You see this also in the declining resources given to the committee system in Congress, for example. These are all things that make it less appealing to be an average member of Congress if you’re a centrist who cares about getting things done, because your individual impact on the legislative process is significantly less than it used to be. That’s one factor, looking ahead to what your job’s going to be like in Congress and sensing you don’t have the same opportunities to drive forward policy that you used to. You might solve some, but not as many.

The second, which is related, is that there’s this sense that it’s not a job that is held in as high esteem as it used to, for a variety of reasons. Interestingly—a lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them this, but—it’s not a job that pays as well as it used to either. That’s in large part because Congress is responsible for setting its own salary, and it’s incredibly unpopular for members of Congress to vote to raise their salaries, so it doesn’t keep up with inflation. In real terms, members of Congress’ salaries have declined quite a lot since the 1960s.

I am not saying that I think current members of Congress should get paid more, but I am saying that a system where they have fewer opportunities to impact the policy process, their job is held in lower esteem, and they’re not paid as well as they used to, is a system that’s not going to attract a lot of very practical, pragmatic centrist people who might have other job opportunities where they feel like they can have a bigger impact. At the same time that those shifts have occurred, we’ve also made running for Congress harder than it used to be. In terms of the relentless expectations, particularly of calling people up and asking them for money—which is not a job most people like—as well as some of the kind of more tabloid media coverage, which is risen as a phenomenon in the last 30 or 40 years.

When you put this all together, my argument is that it’s not a job very many people want. Indeed, when you ask most people if they want to be in Congress, they say no. So, when you’ve built this system where it’s very, very hard and unpleasant to run for office, and what you can do when you’re in office has attenuated a lot, then you have to ask yourself, “Well, who’s going to want to run?”, when that’s the deal that we’re presenting people. It turns out—and we have lots of data to support this—that the people who stand up and say they want to run, are quite ideologically extreme and are quite unrepresentative of society at large. So, I think if you want to understand why Congress is polarizing so much over time, the fact that the people running are just a lot more extreme than they used to be and they’re quite unrepresentative of voters is a critical element you have to look at.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, that sounds plausible, and that might explain the fact that it seems that there are so many show horses as opposed to work horses in Congress today—the number of members who show up on Capitol Hill and decide that they want to spend a significant amount of their time on social media, doing podcasts, doing video conversations on various niche internet channels, etc. when you would think that they might be busy studying public policy, engaging in oversight activities, etc. I could see a connection there. That’s not really what they’re signing up to do, which is to govern. They’re signing up to preach ideology. So what do we do about it? As a closing question for the listeners, is there any prospects for reversing this trend? Is there any hope, Dr. Hall?

Andrew Hall:

I’m a little bit hopeful and I’ll tell you why. There’re some particular reforms that I could talk about and I will, but I think there’s a broader thing that needs to happen, which I feel like—in some ways—is happening.

The broader thing that I think needs to happen is we really need to pierce what I would call a misinformation bubble around how Congress works and how elections work. I think a lot of people have convinced themselves that this polarization story is true. If you looked, for example, at survey data on how Americans think other Americans perceive politics, you would think people are way more polarized than they actually are, because they’re fed this narrative by news media, that everyone is super polarized. You even have people saying this utter nonsense about how most Americans want to fight a civil war.

It’s just not true, and I think the more aware Americans become that there’s actually a huge majority of Americans caught in the middle of all this stuff—because people on the extremes are the ones that have been taking all these political actions in the absence of more behavior by people in the middle—the more we can start to actually name the problem and fix it. I think I see signs of this all over the place, that actually a much broader set of people are getting engaged in politics in the last few years, because what’s going on in politics has become so unacceptable. So, I’m a little bit hopeful that there’s a small amount of self-correction that can occur when enough reasonable people become entirely fed up with what’s going on.

In terms of how we could harness that energy specifically, I think we need to think about how do you create a system that’s more amenable to this broader set of people running for office and having a chance to win office. We could, for example, try to reorganize Congress and give Congress more capacity so that individual legislators can do more—fund more, give members of Congress more staff, take away some of the resources from leadership and give it back to committees—so that we could have a plausible story that if you run and you win, you actually do have this chance to develop your own policy area, become an expert, and impact legislation more.

Of course, we could also pay people more, to be in Congress. I would not advocate for doing that directly, but we could consider something more reasonable where, for example, we say we’re going to raise congressional salaries in the future if the following conditions of success are met. We could create an independent commission to make those decisions, so that legislators don’t have to vote on it themselves.

We could change the way elections work. I’m not a lawyer, and we would definitely need some lawyers to figure this out because there’re constitutional issues. But I think some of the most basic and critical things we could do is to commit candidates to not having to spend all their time fundraising. If you talk to people who are running or who are considering running, their number one complaint is always that they have to spend all day dialing for dollars and they feel like they can’t stop because they know their opponents are, whether that’s in the primary or in the general election. So, you have to create a system where I’m willing to stop dialing for dollars because I know my opponent also is. That might take the form of a self-enforcing compact where a bunch of people come together and sign something saying, “I’m not going to fundraise this much”—it doesn’t necessarily need to be a legal change. But one way or another, I think we need something to make people who are thinking of running for office see that they’re not going to have to spend all their time fundraising.

The last thing I’ll just mention, this pertains to some new research I’ve been doing with Connor Phillips and Jim Snyder, is that this process clearly starts well before just running for Congress. You’re seeing the same patterns at the state legislature level, so the people running for state legislatures are more polarized than they used to be. That’s the number one pool from which future members of Congress are drawn, so when we think about convincing more moderate people to run for office, we should also be thinking about how do you do that at the state level—how do you make more people want to become state legislators? I think all the same ideas I just raised are probably useful at the state legislature level, too, for making running for state legislature a more appealing deal for a broader set of people, which—in the long run—I think will go a long way.

Kevin Kosar:

So there is some hope. Good. That’s what our listeners need: hope. All right, Professor Andrew B. Hall, thank you for helping us understand the connection between who runs elections and political polarization in Congress.

Andrew Hall:

Thank you. It was great to talk.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others, and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening and have a great day.


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