3 Myths About RI’s Polarization Told to the New York Times

Southern Chivalry

Now THAT’s polarization (Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons

So, this is going to come across as tooting my own horn, but Josh Barro at The New York Times‘ TheUpshot got around to covering the Shor-McCarty data on the polarization of state legislatures that I highlighted the day it came it out. Barro, working for a real journalistic outfit like The Times makes the extra step of talking to RI’s politicians and political observers. And virtually every single one of them tells him a myth about polarization in Rhode Island which is then repeated. So let’s run them down in order of appearance:

Myth No. 1: Many Rhode Island Democrats Would Be Republicans Elsewhere

“Lots of Democrats here would be Republicans somewhere else, but they don’t feel they can win without a ‘D’ next to their name,” says Representative Brian Newberry…

…Nick Mattiello, is seen as closer to the interests of business than to those of labor. “Basically, he’s a Republican,” says Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University.

False. The medians for the House chambers supplied by Shor & McCarty show that while the median House Democrat tilts right compared to other states’ Democratic caucuses, they still still wouldn’t even come close to the median House Republicans in the most liberal Republican caucuses of New York and Massachusetts, which are unusually center-left among Republican caucuses. The same holds true for the Senate Democratic caucus, which isn’t close to the unusually left-wing 2008 Massachusetts Senate Republican caucus which was more liberal than three state Senate Democratic caucuses.

Myth No. 2: Fewer Republicans Means Less Polarization

“Certainly one reason Rhode Island scores so low for legislative polarization is that Republicans have been all but invisible for many, many years in our House and Senate,” [Governor Lincoln] Chafee told The Times.

False. Shor & McCarty use a measure of polarization that is between party medians, meaning the number of Republicans is irrelevant to the polarization score. They do provide an alternate measure between legislators, which also shows Rhode Island lack polarization, but their preferred measure is the one between parties.

Myth No. 3: There’s Greater Difference Among Dems Than Between Dems and the GOP

“Traditionally there has been more polarization among the factions of Democrats.” Mr. Chafee knows this well: He became a Democrat in 2013, then quit his campaign for re-election after finding a Democratic primary field already crowded with candidates from the center and the left.

While this also includes the completely fantastical construction that Chafee quit the field because of a lack of place for him instead of his crippling unpopularity, let’s focus on Chafee’s words.

They’re FalseThe Shor-McCarty data shows that difference in views between Rhode Island’s Senate Democrats narrowing in the 2000s; there’s actually been more dramatic shifts in the divergent views among Republicans in both chambers. House Democrats are growing more divergent, but are still not as divergent as Republicans. In fact, since 1996, Republicans have never been this split before.

For both chambers, when you include both parties in the measure, views are even more divergent, telling us there’s a larger difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats than there is within their caucuses.

This chart may be a bit confusing, but it’s using the Shor-McCarty ranking of heterogeneity to demonstrate the divergence within the caucuses:

Heterogeneity in the RI GA

Heterogeneity in the RI GA


Of course, we shouldn’t be expecting Rhode Island’s political observers to pore over data about our unique polarization from obscure political scientists before talking to journalists. But their proximity to the issue doesn’t always make them the best commentators on polarization.

There’s real value in Barro’s article. Of particular value are these last two paragraphs:

In most states, better ideological sorting of voters has drawn clearer distinctions between the parties and made it easier for voters to reward and punish policy choices in general elections. As in Rhode Island, the Democratic Party in Massachusetts once had a strong conservative streak. Ronald Reagan called Edward King, a governor of Massachusetts in the early 1980s, his “favorite Democratic governor.” But gradually conservatives left the party, and Massachusetts Democrats became uniformly liberal, like most Democratic parties in the Northeast. Mr. King lost a primary to Michael Dukakis in 1982 and became a Republican in 1985.

That shift may yet happen in Rhode Island. It’s held back in part because the state’s partisan divide is also a longstanding religious one: Over 100 years ago, Rhode Island’s Catholics lined up with the Democrats against a Republican party that was seen to defend the interests of Protestant business elites. Ms. Schiller of Brown says suspicion of Republicans has been “passed down through the generations” among Rhode Island’s Catholics, even when they hold conservative policy views. In America’s most Catholic state (54 percent, according to 2013 Gallup data), that’s a powerful enough force to keep the state’s Democratic party a big ideological tent, and Republicans on the ropes.

You should also consider John Marion’s words to Phil Marcelo in The Providence Journal last year (though I disagree with Marion on the goodness of the lack of polarization).

EDIT: John Marion clarifies his comments:

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