Forces behind growing political polarization in congress revealed in new model | 10/31/2018 | Staff
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For much of the 20th century, political polarization within the United States House of Representatives tended to decrease over the course of a two-year term. But starting in the mid-1980s, that trend reversed, and in recent decades, polarization has been more likely to grow.

These findings, published today in Royal Society Interface, are the result of a model developed by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who analyzed millions of roll call votes taken in the U.S. Congress. It was able to accurately predict the nature of changes in polarization in 28 of the 30 U.S. Congresses elected in the past six decades.

Economist - Adam - Smith - Hand - Market

"Like the economist Adam Smith's 'invisible hand,' which is the unobservable market force balancing the supply and demand in free markets, we propose in our paper an invisible hand of polarization utility, which decides the level of polarization in votes of legislators," said Boleslaw Szymanski, a distinguished professor of computer science at Rensselaer and a co-author of the paper. "We tend to think humans behave unpredictably, but more and more we see that in a lot of settings, human choices can be explained by abstract and elegant models."

In constructing their model, the authors isolated a force that, they said, plays a role in determining polarization in politics that is analogous to that of gravitational force in physics. They call it "polarization utility," which Szymanski defined as a measure of "how much benefit members of Congress can realize by focusing on issues with appealing to their supporters."

Authors - Factors - Level - Polarization - Utility

The authors identify two critical factors that determine the level of polarization utility: the polarization of voters and an increase in the influence of campaign donors driven by the increasing costs of election campaigns. Lending credence to the power of these two factors is the fact that the two biggest jumps in polarization utility over...
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