At the Conference on Political Polarization, political professionals from both sides of the aisle and experts in the field come together to understand the causes of polarization.

The Conference on Political Polarization was organized by the Project on Political Reform (PPR) at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, with support from the Center for Survey Methodology (CSM) at Harris Public Policy. PPR examines institutional dysfunction in government through data-based research. But PPR’s effort to facilitate reciprocal, bipartisan dialogue between top political practitioners and scholars from across the country has garnered the most attention. 

It’s 8:15 on a Friday morning.

A subtle undercurrent of tension begins to build in a conference room high above Chicago’s downtown lakefront as leading political science scholars and accomplished campaign strategists representing both sides of the political divide file in. This unlikely group will spend two days together trying to understand just how today’s US political and electoral system became so polarized, and how to make our democratic process more civil and productive. 

The tension in the room is easy to understand. PPR assembled a diverse group of elite thinkers and encouraged them to express and even celebrate their differences while looking for common ground. Dichotomies fell along many lines: entrenched Democratic vs. Republican ideologies; empirical research vs. practical experience; and digital experts vs. traditional media consultants. 

“Is there a term in social science where dots are just dots?” “Paul Ryan never lost a vote—except when he was elected Speaker.” “If anything, I want campaigns to be more extreme because I’m an ideological extremist.” “It sounds like you advocate taking power away from the ‘deplorables’ and giving it to the ‘never Trumpers.’”It’s no wonder fireworks exploded at times.

Beyond the edgy banter, the conference explored a diverse agenda that surfaced many important issues. How does political polarization manifest in elites and the masses? Do voters get better representation when they replace officeholders more frequently? What role has identity politics played in recent elections? Would voters be better served if political elites chose the candidates? Do investments in digital advertising—whether by Russian actors or political campaigns—really succeed in changing votes—and at what cost?

Associate Professor Anthony Fowler

The debate grew especially intense when Harris Associate Professor Anthony Fowler presented his talk entitled “Better Representation through Replacement.” Fowler’s study incorporated legislative roll-call data into a regression discontinuity design. Data showed that in moderate, toss-up districts the results of one election can influence roll-call representation for decades—and that too often votes cast don’t align with voter interests. 

Not surprisingly, practitioners bristled at Fowler’s inference that legislators don’t care about their constituents’ views or interests. They argued that legislators must deal with many other factors besides local public opinion. For instance, legislators often support specific measures in exchange for appropriations that directly benefit their districts— or to satisfy the demands of party leaders whose support will be needed to push through other measures.  Furthermore, they argue that legislators’ efforts to shape bills so they address their constituents’ needs often succeed or fail long before roll-call votes are cast and, therefore, aren’t observable in the official record.

“My research suggests that candidates cannot credibly commit to casting more moderate votes once in Congress, despite being elected by moderate constituents,” Fowler said. “Legislators don’t seem to respond to electoral incentives, even though data shows that moderate candidates do better in elections. If these legislators would actually vote more moderately, their party would win more seats, they would do a better job for constituents, and there would be less polarization in Congress.”

Led by an accomplished former political consultant, Marc Farinella (who previously served as the first Harris COO) and political scientist William Howell, a leading expert on separation of powers and the presidency, PPR has become a hub for public policy students and scholars interested in government and politics. Together, through PPR, Farinella and Howell carry forward the unique traditions of vigorous, data-driven research and pluralistic debate that have defined the University of Chicago and Harris from their origins.

“Harris’ annual meeting of political practitioners and academics is the most important academic meeting I go to every year,” said Professor Lynn Vavreck of UCLA, who delivered a presentation entitled, “The Importance of Leadership: Controlling the Effects of Polarization through Nominations.”. “It’s so significant to have the people who are advising candidates for top offices and the academics studying elections in the same room, having frank and candid conversations about the state of politics in America. These types of interactions between Republicans and Democrats — and researchers and consultants — are rare. What I learn from practitioners at these meetings shapes my work — and I hope at least some of them can say the same about what they learn from the academics!” 

Harris Professor Colm O'Muircheartaigh

This recent conference is one of several platforms PPR has created to advance its agenda. In 2017, PPR once again teamed with CSM and its leader, former Harris dean Colm O’Muircheartaigh, to convene a group of academics from across the nation and senior political professionals of both parties to discuss electoral reform proposals. Participants included President Trump’s media consultant, a White House Chief Legal Counsel under President Obama, President Obama’s Communications Director, Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, and pollsters for such prominent figures as Senators Marco Rubio and Dick Durbin. Among many other issues, the conference examined an enlightening study of how candidate name order on ballots distorts election outcomes by arbitrarily advantaging certain candidates over others.  

PPR recently received a grant from Democracy Fund, a non-partisan foundation established to help strengthen democratic institutions. In addition to supporting PPR’s recent conference on political polarization, the grant is funding PPR’s effort to work with a group of political social media professionals of both parties to identify common ground on how to deal with such diverse issues as governmental regulation of social media platforms, digital privacy, civility, fake news, echo chambers and election interference by foreign governments. The Cato Institute will hold a public forum in late May to discuss the group’s recommendations. Also in May, PPR and University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science will co-host a one-day conference on racial and geographic polarization and its political implications and manifestations.  

“These conversations suggest there are additional areas where practitioners can agree on bipartisan reforms that would lead to reducing polarization,” said Laura Maristany, associate director at Democracy Fund. “We hope some of the relationships developed at the conferences can also lead to more collaboration in this space.”  

 “One great strength of the democratic process is to find people with different viewpoints who wouldn’t seek each other out under normal circumstances,” added Democratic digital media consultant Roy Temple. “It doesn’t happen much anymore, and many actually challenge natural discussions and efforts at comity. I can’t think of any other time when I would be having healthy, useful discussions with the other side of political spectrum. You can’t make progress if you can’t even have productive conversation.”

“PPR’s setup strips away candidate affiliation and ideology. We talk about political science from theoretical and practical points of view, in a way that takes away much of the anger and energy. People with different views come together, find commonalities in how they approach subjects, and develop relationships with academics.” – Republican consultant Beth Myers

PPR also serves the Harris community by luring students out of their political safe zones to share their views on public policy. Students with liberal and conservative beliefs break bread together while discussing such topics as immigration, guns, and the proper role (and limits) of government in modern society. Its most recent Across the Aisle Dinner Seriesevent focused on the topic, “Lead the Free World or Step Back and Focus on America: What's the Right Posture for American Policy Leaders?”

William Howell, Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics

But the backbone of PPR continues to be political science research, and political economists associated with PPR are working at the leading edge of their domains. PPR director and Harris professor William Howell, to name just one such expert, collaborated with Stanford Professor Terry Moe to write Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency (Basic Books, 2016). More recently, Harris Professors Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Scott Ashworth worked with Amanda Friedenberg to publish the study, “Accountability and Information in Elections,” which explores the adverse relationship between the accountability of elected officials and how well informed voters are about their candidates. 

“At PPR, we want to be very hard-nosed about how we think about and diagnose problems and design solutions,” said Howell. “This involves bringing together people who disagree, connecting academics to practitioners, encouraging academics who work on political economy to think about new institutional arrangements for conducting elections, and exploring how to structure governing institutions in the service of good government.” 

PPR Executive Director Marc Farinella

In the end, PPR aspires to mitigate the dysfunctions that are subverting the democratic process. “To move a national agenda forward, we’re going to have to restore civility and find areas of common ground,” said Marc Farinella, PPR’s Executive Director. “Political practitioners can help usher in change and improve the health of democratic institutions. And academic researchers who study elections, governance and democracy often have a very different perspective of how politics works than do the practitioners. Talking to each other is the first step to finding solutions. In such a polarized environment, that’s not something that happens on its own.”