Friday, April 15, 2011

Polarization in the US

The US is one of the very few countries which votes on the level of the debt the government can take. The predictions are that in 6 weeks, the US government debt will have reached the current "debt ceiling", and Congress must approve an increase in this debt ceiling by then. Here is the schedule as seen by Tim Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary
Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told Congressional leaders the government would hit the limit no later than May 16. He outlined “extraordinary measures” — essentially moving money among federal accounts — that could buy time until July 8.
The NYT had a nice graph on the debt ceiling issue and the current composition of the debt:

It is interesting to see the divisions between the two parties. And by "interesting", I mean "WOW". Politico reported a couple of days ago on a statement released by the House Majority Leader John Boehner, taking a stronger stance fiscal policies:

(I)f the President begins the discussion by saying we must increase taxes on the American people – as his budget does - my response will be clear: tax increases are unacceptable and are a nonstarter
But Talking Points Memo reports on the proposal circling among Democrats that would prevent the passage of any agreement on the debt ceiling diminishing federal spending
A group of progressive House Democrats is rounding up support for objecting to hiking the debt limit, if it includes GOP plans to slash spending on federal programs.

The polarization on the debt ceiling issue is quite new. Keith Poole has a nice animated gif on his blog showing the polarization over congresses since the 99th(today is the 112th)

More generally, it seems to be clear that polarization in the US has increased. First, in the political institutions. Keith Poole recently reposted the graph on the evolution of polarization in the US House betwen 1870 and 2010. It is quite telling

In February, Gallup released the results from a poll showing that
President Barack Obama's job approval ratings were even more polarized during his second year in office than during his first, when he registered the most polarized ratings for a first-year president

I am trying to find some numbers for the two houses of Congress, but cannot find them for now.

For the population overall,  we can lookt at different indicatiors. At the Monkey Cage, Mike Sances produced a graph on the partisan gap in political trust in government. The first graph in his post shows that people trusts the government more when it is from their own party. But this partisan difference has widen since Reagan:

So the polarization started in the Reagan era. I am not a specialist of American politics so I cannot say what happened at this point(the issue might be actually trivial to some? Is this something simple?)
One thing I am thinking about, that might have been a driver in recent history, is media. It probably sounds stereotypical and I am most probably wrong, but here are my 2 cents, based on 2 papers written by Ethan Kaplan(disclaimer: Ethan is currently working in the same university where I study). The first story comes from a paper showing the effect of Fox News on Republican vote shares. The authors use the variation in the introduction of Fox News across states between 1996 and 2000, and find

a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. Republicans gain 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns which broadcast Fox News.

The second looked at the persistence in political ideology, and took advantage of the jump in Republican registration after 9/11 to see whether this jump was perceivable years later. It was:

We first show that 9/11 increased Republican registration by approximately 2%. Surprisingly, these differences in registration patterns fully persist over the two year period from 2006 to 2008
the impact of the 9/11 shock seems to have had a much larger impact on 18 year olds than on those between 25 and 60

Jon Stewart often evoked the impact 9/11 had on the creation of 24 hour-news network. If there's no information, the information is made up(e.g. balloon boy). Some cable channels, admittedly watched by only a small group of people, are really partisan(Fox News, MSNBC, etc...). But leaders of opinion matter, so the problem of small audience might not be relevant. So my point is: one chooses his/her information source -> forges political opinion(Fox News effect) -> political opinion becomes permanent(9/11 story).
The million dollar question is why there is persistence. Kaplan and Mukand try to explain that in their 9/11 paper, but the explanations are not really convincing(it relies on psychology, and there is no evidence or tests run.), though they offer nice empirical counter-arguments showing that the permanence is not due to the cost of accessing or processing information or Bayesian learning. The psychological explanations proposed by the authors are  Identity(e.g. there is a benefit derived from belonging in a group, and it is costly to leave the group) and cognitive bias(e.g. one selects information that validates her point). I am quite sympathetic to those theories, but the question is still on the table.

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