I’d like to mention a couple of things on William Galston’s NYT article that is making its way through the polisci blogs this week. Jon Bernstein and John Sides do a solid job of challenging the idea that increased participation will decrease polarization. This post is more of a caveat than a critique. Galston argues that political activists are more likely to vote, and non-voters are more likely to be moderate. Therefore, forcing non-voters to vote would decrease polarization. I won’t rehash Bernstein and Sides arguments but I do want to offer another reason that higher turnout wouldn’t depolarize the country.
Congress has a large role in polarization over the past 30 or so years. It’s not just that parties are recruiting more extreme candidates for office or that partisan activists vote more frequently. Congress as an institution has a huge effect on the distance between the parties. For all intensive purposes the majority party controls the legislative process’s agenda setting powers, the amendment and debate rules (except in the Senate), and the voting procedures for bills that reach the floor. Not only do these powers help promote party discipline in Congress, but they have a significant and powerful effect on polarization. According to Sean Theriault (ungated paper; book) party power in Congress accounts for nearly 50-70% of members’ observable voting polarization over the last 30 years. Although ideological shifting and gerrymandering play a roll in members’ polarization, they are completely underwhelming compared to the procedural factors that drive the parties apart.
What does this mean? Even if nonvoters voted more frequently, the legislative process would be resistant to depolarization. The procedural power the majority party controls in Congress makes bipartisanship and cooperation extremely difficult, not to mention unlikely. While I’m all for adding voters to the electorate, I’m less confident that it would decrease party polarization. Moderate members may narrow the gap but not significantly enough to instigate bipartisanship. Polarization is as much, if not more, an institutional problem as it is an electoral problem. Depolarizing politics has to include procedural reform in Congress.