Recently, the Shriver Center released the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, which measures how every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted on the most significant poverty-related proposed legislation of 2013. Not surprisingly, the results revealed a deep polarization within Congress, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D, or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.
Recent research by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal aggregated congressional roll call votes since 1879 and contextualized what is documented by the Poverty Scorecard. Pool and Rosenthal’s research shows that after decades of relatively little polarization, the congressional parties began pulling apart in the mid-1970s. Today Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction, with political ideology accounting for 93% of roll call voting choices in the 113th House and Senate.
This increase in polarization not only affects Congress. A recent Pew Research Center study reveals the American public has seen an increase in political party polarization and sorting in the past few decades as well. Looking at a survey of 10 dichotomous political values questions tracked since 1994, Pew found that the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%. It is also clear that ideological thinking has a much stronger correlation with party affiliation than in the past; today, 92% of Republicans are ideologically to the right of the median Democrat (compared with 64% in 1994), and 94% of Democrats are ideologically to the left of the median Republican (compared with 70% in 1994).
Of course, the majority of Americans continue to choose some mix of liberal and conservative ideological preferences in the survey. What’s significant, however, is those who express ideologically consistent views are much more likely to participate in the political process—together, Solid Liberals, Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives make up only 36% of the American public, but they represent 43% of registered voters and 57% of the more politically engaged. One can practically conclude that the higher political engagement of politically consistent voters leads to an increased ideological polarization of the officials they disproportionately elect.
It is impossible to conclude which came first—the polarization of Congress or of the wider public—but one thing is certain: these overlapping forms of polarization reinforce one another and ultimately lead to partisan gridlock. As we noted in our blog on the 2013 Poverty Scorecard, gridlock is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo.
Low-income people also have a lot to lose within the current partisan divide because as long as ideological attitudes increasingly fall on partisan lines, attitudes about poverty, which are deeply ideological, will continue to fall on partisan lines as well. This point is reinforced by the second part of the Pew series on political polarization, which studies “political typology” by sorting people into eight cohesive political types (Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Young Outsiders, Hard Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Solid Liberals) based on their responses to 23 dichotomous questions. Three of these questions addressed views on economic fairness, the safety net, and the poor. These are some notable findings:
- The public is evenly split on whether they believe that government aid to the poor does more harm than good. But, when broken down, 86% of Steadfast Conservatives, 80% of Business Conservatives, and 86% of Young Outsiders said that government aid does more harm to the poor than good, while 91% of Solid Liberals said it did more good than harm.
- Slightly more than half of all people surveyed said the government can’t afford to do more to help the needy; in contrast, over 85% of Steadfast Conservatives said that the Government can’t do more to help, while 83% of Steadfast Liberals said the Government should do more to help the needy.
- The public is just about evenly split on attitudes about the poor, but there are deep ideological divides among typologies: 86% of Steadfast Conservatives say that the poor have it easy because they get government benefits without doing anything, while 86% of Solid Liberals say the poor have it hard because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.
- Two-thirds of Americans continue to hold the belief that people can get ahead if they are willing and work hard, while a bit less than one-third agreed that hard work is no guarantee of success for most. The American myth that anyone can pull him or herself up by the bootstraps clearly continues to carry tremendous weight, obfuscating the power of social systems and structures, such as racism, classism, and sexism, to oppress and perpetuate poverty, and making it more difficult to achieve systemic solutions.
What can we learn from these findings? More importantly, in an age of congressional gridlock, clearly rooted in polarized beliefs in both Congress and the wider public, what can possibly be done to ensure access to opportunity and justice for all? Read Part II of this blog tomorrow to learn how advocates can utilize messaging and reframing to ensure access to justice and opportunity for low-income people in an age of political polarization.