California Political Polarization Most Extreme Of Any U.S. State, Study Says

california capitol building in...
california capitol building in...

When most people think about California politics, the word "liberal" often comes to mind.

While California's Democratic Party is dominant, labeling the state's elected representatives as universally left-of-center misses a fundamental dynamic of Golden State politics: California's liberals may be very liberal, but its conservatives are extremely conservative.

Princeton University's Nolan McCarty and University of Chicago's Boris Shor ranked all 50 states based on their legislative polarization and found that the gap between California's Democratic and Republican parties is the largest of any state in the nation, according to an analysis posted online late last month.

Check out this chart of their findings (for reference, the dotted line represents the United States Congress):

california political polarization

Though the report initially may seem surprising, California is, after all, the state that is simultaneously sending both Nancy Pelosi and Darrell Issa to Congress.

While states with very liberal Democratic parties tend to have fairly conservative Republican parties (and vice-versa) that's not even remotely true for California.

"You can see the polarization every day in the way that the legislature behaves," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California specializing in elections and legislative behavior. McGhee noted that this is a big change from the 1950s, when there was little ideological difference between the two parties.

McGhee also said that research has shown that certain factors, such as redistricting, don't play a major role in the increasing polarization.

"The electorate isn't what's driving this polarization," he explained. "The elites have been sorting themselves into the two parties in a different way than they did previously. It used to be that elites who were conservatives might align themselves with the Democratic Party, that's just not the case anymore."

This elite divergence, according to McGhee, is causing the parties to move away from each other in a much more extreme manner. "If you look at the average ideology of Californians, it sits a little to the left, but still squarely in the middle of both political parties."



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