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Polarizing Politics

USC Marshall's Institute for Outlier Research in Business (iORB) supports research highlighting the nature and ongoing challenge of political polarization

December 14, 2020

With the 2020 elections decided and Inauguration Day just over one month away, two works from Marshall researchers and their colleagues are keeping the spotlight on the ongoing hurdles the United States faces in understanding and confronting continued political polarization.

The first, a study supported by Marshall’s Institute for Outlier Research in Business (iORB) published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed economic journal, Econometrica, shows that political polarization in the U.S. is in large part due to the political party machines of the two main parties. The study, titled “Unbundling Polarization,” was authored by Professors Nathan Canen at the University of Houston, Chad Kendall at Marshall, and Francesco Trebbi at the University of California, Berkeley.

The second, a study published in Games and Economic Behavior by Marshall’s Odilon Camara with co-author Ricardo Alonso, “Political disagreement and information in elections,” led to a recent op-ed for The Hill, which argues that unwinding polarization may prove exceedingly difficult.

“Even if [polarization] sometimes misses the mark, the potential payoff makes it a bet many politicians are willing to take—and we all have to live with the consequences."—Odilon Camara, Associate Professor of Finance and Business Economics

While polarization, and its resulting gridlock, has become a major topic of debate recently, polarization in Congress has had a long history. Previous analyses have documented a growing distance between members of the Democratic and Republican parties. The study from Kendall and his co-authors adds that the polarization is largely due to party machines which place pressure on members to cast partisan votes.

“Our study finds that the policy positions of members of different parties are less far apart than commonly thought,” said Kendall.

“The key to our study is our use of relatively unknown detailed records on ‘whip counts’ kept by the majority and minority whips in the late 1970s to late 1980s,” said Canen. “Whips are key party members responsible for maintaining discipline of the two parties.”

Trebbi added, “These records are invaluable because they reveal members’ preferred positions on votes prior to party influence.” The extent to which members initially report that they intend to vote against their party’s preferred position, but then ultimately vote with the party, provides a measure of party pressure.

“This finding sheds some light on the puzzle that members of Congress appear to be more polarized on policy positions than the electorates they represent,” said Kendall. “It also suggests that institutional changes to reduce the strength of parties could partly relieve polarization.”

As Camara points out in his op-ed, that search for relief from political polarization may continue for a long time. The straightforward reason? Politicians have every incentive to keep voters in separate, highly energized bases.

“Our media landscape, with its online echo chambers and partisan outlets, certainly plays a role,” wrote Camara. “So does an ever-widening cultural rift between rural whites and diverse city-dwellers, red states and blue states. But one of the biggest forces driving polarization is often overlooked: It's a deliberate strategy that politicians use to get elected.”

“Even if [polarization] sometimes misses the mark, the potential payoff makes it a bet many politicians are willing to take—and we all have to live with the consequences,” concludes Camara.

However the country finds its way forward, Marshall and iORB researchers will continue to study the business, social, and political trends that will shape our future.