Joe Nocera’s New York Times column yesterday featured Rep. Jim Cooper, a moderate Tennessee Democrat, lamenting the state of Congress. Unfortunately, Cooper almost completely misunderstands cause and effect in his diagnosis of legislative polarization, which focuses, as Nocera writes, on “the internal dynamics of Congress itself”:

I thought it would be useful to ask Cooper how Congress became so dysfunctional. His answer surprised me. He said almost nothing about the Tea Party. Instead, he focused on the internal dynamics of Congress itself.

To Cooper, the true villain is not the Tea Party; it’s Newt Gingrich. In the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, “Congress was functional,” Cooper told me. “Committees worked. Tip saw his role as speaker of the whole House, not just the Democrats.”

Gingrich was a new kind of speaker: deeply partisan and startlingly power-hungry. “His first move was to get rid of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzed bills, and which was so trusted that Republicans as well as Democrats relied on it,” Cooper recalled. “This was his way of preventing us from knowing what we were voting on. Today,” he added, “the ignorance around here is staggering. Nobody has any idea what they’re voting on.”

In the O’Neill era, when an important issue was being debated, there were often several legislative alternatives. But, under Gingrich, “that was eliminated in favor of one partisan bill,” said Cooper. That continued after the Democrats retook the House in 2006…

In reality, however, the changes Cooper laments were largely the result of external factors. As I’ve pointed out before, Congress was relatively de-polarized in the mid-20th century because Southern Democrats operated as a virtual third party (House graphs below; Senate data are similar):


After the civil rights movement, however, the Democrats were no longer internally divided by race. As a result, the political system began to return to the historical norm of polarization. Over time, this shift was reenforced by the polarization among ideologically motivated activists who came to dominate party primaries. As more extreme representatives were elected to the House and the parties became more polarized, they began to elect more partisan leaders, who in turn implemented more partisan rules.

Newt Gingrich is an important part of this story, but he didn’t make Congress partisan – he capitalized on growing polarization among activists and elites and an ideologically motivated caucus that wanted to enact a conservative policy agenda. If Gingrich hadn’t succeeded in changing the norms of the House, another ambitious member of Congress most likely would have.

(According to Nocera, Cooper also made the claim that “redistricting has fostered extremism on both the left and the right.” If that were the case, however, the Senate would not have polarized like the House (it has). The best empirical study finds little evidence that gerrymandering plays a major role in polarization.)

[Cross-posted at]

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.