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Faculty Spotlight

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Associate Professor of political science and author of “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” focuses her research on partisan conflicts in the United States and the difficulties reaching bipartisan agreements. In this interview, Prof. Harbridge-Yong discusses partisanship itself — why it occurs, if it’s always been prevalent, and how to decrease it. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Question: It's been quite a year for partisanship in Congress. The year began with an impeachment trial in the Senate. It has been difficult for Republicans and Democrats to agree on a second coronavirus relief package, and now it looks like there might be a Supreme Court nomination. Do party leaders in Congress prioritize this partisan conflict? And if so, why?

Laurel Harbridge-Yong: The first reason we might observe conflict between Democrats and Republicans is that they fundamentally disagree about the policy in front of them. Democrats want to move policy in a liberal direction; Republicans want to move it in the conservative direction — but that's an explanation that really leaves aside their electoral interest. When we bring in their electoral interests, that's where I think we start to see a lot of reasons as to why we might see elected leaders prioritizing partisan conflict.

We can see a couple of different ways in which prioritizing conflict can play out. When leaders have the choice of which bills to bring up for a vote, they have a fair amount of discretion. There might be two different approaches for how to deal with healthcare or with gun reform or the farm bill or any other sort of policy area. Some of those proposals might be things that could garner bipartisan support and some might be bills that the policy content ends up splitting the parties down the line. When given the choice, party leaders may choose to pursue the bill that is more partisan and ignore the bill that's more bipartisan.

The other ways in which we can think about prioritizing party conflict and partisan conflict extending beyond ideological differences is that both the leadership, as well as party-members, can pursue particular votes or vote in particular ways that actually go opposite of what their policy preferences would be. So even where they could reach an agreement, they reject that agreement because they want to point out differences for the other side. Minority party legislators might say “No” to something that the majority is pursuing because they do not want to make it easy for them to pass the legislation. Then, obviously, on the majority party side, the leadership often brings forward bills that may be dead on arrival, but they still bring the bills forward as a kind of “messaging-legislation”. With the recent coronavirus-response legislation, we see some of this: the House wants to be able to say, "We as the Democrats have passed this legislation, the Senate is blocking it and not giving it consideration."

Q: You published an article last year on the effects of blaming others for legislative inaction. What are those effects?

LHY: What we found is that blaming the opposing party does hurt the individual legislator, so there's a bit of a backlash against the legislator for blaming the opposing party. This effect, however, is concentrated among Independents and those in the other parties — relative to the member. However, blaming the opposing party boosts the standing of their party as a whole — relative to the opposing party. So, when a Democratic legislator blames the Republican Party, the relative evaluation in the public of Democrats in the public compared to Republicans is improved.

Q: Has Congress always functioned in such a partisan manner (i.e party leaders blaming the opposing party)? If not, when and why did that change?

LHY: Certainly politics has always been part of the policymaking process, but I think that there's a fair amount of evidence with my own work, as well as other scholars’ works, that points to the fact that this has changed. It changed, I think, beginning in the 1970s as polarization rose. As the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans increased, the stakes of winning became higher. Obviously, the ability to find common ground and agreement decreased as well. This then accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as competition for majority-control increased. The competition for majority-control increases the likelihood of this messaging-politics and partisan conflict for the sake of partisanship.

For much of the 1950s through the 1990s, the house was controlled by Democrats. The Republicans were this permanent minority. The Republicans did gain the Senate in the 1980s — that was his first kind of glimmer of, "Wait, we can be the majority party." Then, obviously, the Republican Party winning the 1994 elections and Newt Gingrich coming in as Speaker in 1995 began this period of not only actual alternation in power more frequently, but a belief that at any given election, the majority party could change.

Q: In your new book, "Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters,” you found that legislators may refuse compromise because they don't want to be punished by primary voters. But what types of changes could increase compromise?

Although we found that legislators' perception that voters would punish them for compromising led them to reject compromise and that their perception of voter anger at compromise is focused on primary voters, when we studied the public itself, we actually found that it's a very small fraction of the public that would actually be likely to punish. It's not even the majority of primary voters, at least in our survey, that would punish a legislator for compromising. So, legislators have a bit of a misperception perhaps, or an outsized fear.

That ties to the solutions — I think it says that if people in the public who do want compromise and do want legislators to work together and find solutions make their voices heard more, legislators might not have this kind of outsized fear of the primary voter. Legislators hear the most vocal voices — the people who are writing to their member of Congress, calling their member of Congress, showing up at town halls — and these do not tend to be the kind of centrist Americans or even the partisans who want the parties to work together. So if people who want to see the parties work together can make their voices more heard, that's one solution.

Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)

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