More than a Feeling: Personality, Polarization, and the transformation of the U.S. Congress
To say that the last few decades in American politics has been tumultuous is surely an understatement. As the members of the Democratic and Republican parties have become more ideologically cohesive, polarization has risen and politics has become more volatile. No place is this more clear than in the halls of the United States Congress. A body once hallowed for its norms of cooperation and compromise has become mired in the polarized climate, seemingly unable to pass what ten years ago would be seen as routine legislation. This is especially notable in the Senate, where the smaller chamber size and close personal bonds between members has become more of a children's story than a legislative reality.
Despite this new world we find ourselves in, there is scant evidence as to the causes of increased polarization in the last decades. Indeed, while many pages have been printed demonstrating how polarization has arisen, precious little has been said trying to explain why. To be sure, there have been significant attempts to look at shifting electoral concerns and gerrymandering as potential causes for polarization. The results of these studies has been, at best, mixed.
Even worse, political scientists have been heretofore ill-equipped to understand the causes of what we might call the next step in the evolution of polarization. Whereas two decades ago, polarization was more about members of the two major parties becoming ideologically disparate, we have now entered a world whereby members with the same ideological profiles are behaving differently. Indeed, the last few years of Republican control in the House of Representatives have shown deep divisions within the conservative ranks as to how to pursue policy goals. To date, no answer has been offered as why two Congressmembers with similar ideologies should behave differently.
In More than a Feeling: Personality, Polarization, and the transformation of the U.S. Congress, we argue that, to understand this latest phase in polarization, we need to look beyond the standard accepted story of legislative behavior. Rather than simply considering the primacy of ideology as a deterministic factor in legislative decision-making, we must consider how more primal forces are at work in legislators' calculuses. Drawing on developments in psychology and experimental economics, we argue convincingly that the Big Five personality traits---Openness to new experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism---are the key to unlocking this new legislative world.
While we are surely not the first scholars to consider how personality affects legislative behavior, advances in computer science have equipped us, for the first time, to develop the first cross-temporal measures of legislator personality. Our massive data collection effort, spanning two decades of legislative speeches, committee assignments, press releases, roll call votes, campaign finance, bill proposals, and a host of other sources allows us to reevaluate the entire ``textbook'' story of Congress and to explain variation in legislative behavior, even after controlling for legislator ideology. We begin our story by looking at the electoral process and move on to cover major parts of a legislator's career---proposing legislation, committee assignments, becoming an effective legislator, obstructive behavior, usage of traditional and social media, and moving on (i.e., retiring, running for higher office). The last part of the book explains how our findings can help to shed light on both the standard ideological story of Congress and how they help to predict future trends in polarization.
You can find our detailed book prospectus here.