Thursday, February 18, 2010

Measuring Partisanship

We hear a lot of complaints that legislators -- whether Members of Congress or representatives in state houses from Juneau to Tallahassee -- are more partisan today than in the past, that politics is more polarized than it has ever been before.

Those who complain point to the lack of action in Congress on big-ticket issues like health care or climate change legislation ("cap and trade").  Liberal Democrats accuse conservative Republicans of obstructionism today, just as Harry Truman did in 1948 when he criticized the "Do-Nothing" Congress of blocking his plans for nationalizing the health care system.  (Plus ├ža change...)

Personally, I think these back-and-forth accusations about renewed or worsened partisanship are off the mark.  For one thing, policy differences between the major political parties go back to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  Why else would Americans split up into two parties?  (Or more, of course:  there are as many differences between the Libertarians and the Greens as there are between Libertarians and Republicans, or Libertarians and Democrats, or Greens and Republicans, ad permutatium.)

So much of the cloud of partisanship is based on heated rhetoric (more heat, less light, in most cases) that it is difficult to discern how accurate and justified the grousing about it actually is.

Now some movement toward a more-or-less objective measurement of partisanship has emerged on the excellently useful web site, Richmond Sunlight, which tracks legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.  (It does much more than that, but legislative tracking is its major service.)

Richmond Sunlight's founder and designer, Waldo Jaquith, has devised a tool that shows how partisan Virginia Delegates and Senators are, based upon the co-sponsors ("co-patrons" in Virginia legislative parlance) of the bills they introduce and/or co-patron.

While the measurement isn't on a conservative-to-liberal scale, and while it has its own constraints, it offers a picture of which legislators reach across the aisle to seek cooperation in arguing for bills they care about, and which ones stick mostly to their own party.  It asks the question, Do Republican and Democratic birds of a feather flock together?  The answer, while necessarily incomplete, comes pretty close to being ... yes and no.

You can see Waldo's tool here:  Click the box for "partisanship" and you'll see blue-to-purple-to-red graphs that indicate how "Republican" or "Democrat" each Delegate or Senator is.  Click on the word "Partisanship" at the top of the column and the graphs will rearrange themselves into blue-to-red order.

The data used to produce these graphs goes back to 2006 (the launch of Richmond Sunlight), so newly elected legislators have their partisanship judged on a much smaller database than the veterans.

You'll discover some interesting and unexpected results.

For instance, the newest Democrat (Kaye Kory) and one of the newest Republicans (John Cox) are the most partisan members of the House of Delegates.

You'll also notice that Bob Marshall is closer to the "center" than Speaker of the House Bill Howell or Ben Cline or Rob Bell.

It may be no surprise that two veteran legislators from Arlington, Delegate Adam Ebbin and Senator Mary Margaret Whipple, are the most partisan Democrats in their respective chambers (besides the aforementioned freshman, Kaye Kory).

Here's the real kicker (especially for all you Fifth District Tea Partiers):  The most partisan Republican in the state Senate is Robert Hurt.

Waldo, one of Virginia's most experienced political bloggers, deserves commendation for compiling this data and creating a graphic presentation that is easily comprehensible.  This will be a useful tool for years to come.

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