WASHINGTON, D.C. - Have you ever thought, “What kind of nut would run for Congress these days?” Well, we now know the answer: ideologically extreme nuts.
Okay, that is a slight exaggeration of the findings of new research by Duke University political scientist Danielle Thomsen published in The Journal of Politics.
Thomsen looked at the population of state legislators from 2000 to 2010 to see who ran for Congress and who didn’t. The results are not exactly shocking. “In the contemporary political context, partisan polarization in Congress has discouraged ideological moderates in the political pipeline from pursuing a congressional career,” Thomsen writes.
While moderates are less likely to run in both parties, the phenomenon is asymmetrical. Thomsen says, “I find that liberal Republican and conservative Democratic state legislators are less likely to run for Congress than those at the ideological poles, though this disparity is particularly pronounced on the Republican side.”
Thomsen calls this the theory of Party Fit: potential candidates are discouraged from running who don’t confirm to the current dominant profile of the party. This doesn’t explain how Congress became so polarized, but it does help explain why it remains so.
Here’s what the data looks like:
The names on the chart represent various points in the left-right spectrum, with moderates in both parties on the right side of the graphs. In both parties, moderate legislators are far less likely to run than their more ideological colleagues.
This seems like the normal self-selection you see in most groups. But it doesn’t offer much encouragement to those who’d like to think that fresh blood would improve congressional health.
“The quality of political representation is compromised when only a narrow ideological subset of individuals is willing to engage in electoral contests. Scholars of legislative representation and partisan polarization must turn their attention to questions of candidate emergence to understand why some individuals seek elective office and others do not. The democratic ideal deeply depends on, and indeed takes for granted, the existence of a vibrant and diverse pool of candidates from which voters can choose. If the only candidates who are willing to run for office are as extreme as the rascals in office, this has serious consequences for the representation of those in the ideological middle, which includes the majority of the American people.”
It seems to me the solution to this is pretty simple: a third party. A party of moderates might be dull as dishwater. But as Thomsen says, it would represent a majority of the American people.
One thing the two parties can work together on, however, is keeping third wheels out of the big party.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of CBSNews.com. Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics, "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium" (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).
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