Long-time Washington official and deal maker Leon Panetta was recently quoted–by long-time California official and deal-maker Willie Brown–reminiscing about the old days “when Republicans and Democrats often bunked together in Washington, D.C., and how that fostered a mutual respect we no longer see.” To those who view the recent decades of political polarization as rooted in deep social and economic forces, this observation seems more like nostalgia than serious analysis. But a new study of congressional polarization and congressional bunking together two centuries ago suggests that there may be something to the Panetta remark and to the idea that personal connections across party lines can build political bridges.
Researchers have fully documented the political polarization over the last generation. Starting first among political leaders and more politically involved voters and then spreading to the wider public, this polarization has entailed widening ideological distance and fiercer opposition between Republicans and Democrats. Viewpoints on issues increasingly diverged, collaboration seemed to evaporate, and personal antagonism across party lines flared. It’s as if party allegiance has become as primal as tribal loyalty (see, e.g., here.) In a special 2016 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly devoted to political polarization, editor Shanto Iyengar notes research showing that “prejudice based on party identity exceeds the comparable bias based on race, religion, gender, or other significant cleavages” and even that “online dating sites and national voter files confirm that partisanship is a key attribute underlying the selection of long-term partners.”
(As I write this, most Republican officials and apparently the great majority of Republican voters are willing to overlook Donald Trump’s video-taped confession of having–it seems–committed sexual assaults, so strong is their political allegiance to their party and/or hostility to the other party.)
This degree of partisan bitterness is not new in American history; it seems new only in comparison to the relatively un-polarized politics of the postwar twentieth century. Fierce partisanship flared up often in the nineteenth century, even reaching violence among legislators. But sociability may have tempered those tempers.
In a newly-published research paper, sociologists Paolo Parigi and Patrick Bergemann study the housing arrangements and legislative votes of U.S. representatives between 1825 and 1841. These were the years in which Jacksonian mass politics emerged, bringing with it political mobilization of the “common man” and bitter electoral contests. Parigi and Bergemann ask whether personal ties–as implied by “bunking together”–might have narrowed some these deep divides.
In those years, congressmen were temporary sojourners in a new and still rustic capital. “There were few private residences in Washington, D.C., and fewer diversions to be had in this underdeveloped ‘city of magnificent intentions’. The locus of social life was in the boardinghouse, where fellow boarders ate together, slept together, and spent their leisure time together,” write Parigi and Bergemann. “Boardinghouse affiliation was perceived [by congressmen] to be important. Congressional directories listed congressmen by their boardinghouses rather than alphabetically . . . they became the basis for social interactions among congressmen.” Anecdote had it that housemates tended to vote alike. The authors tested these notions statistically.
Parigi and Bergemann combined directory listings of where House representatives lived, biographies of the legislators, and voting patterns to ask the following question: Were any two congressmen who lived in the same boarding house more likely to vote the same way than were any two congressmen who did not? Yes they were. In fact, sharing a boarding house was–after only sharing a party affiliation–the strongest predictor of sharing a voting record, more important, for example, than sharing a state of origin. “Our analysis reveals that . . . congressmen living together voted more similarly compared to congressmen living apart, regardless of regional or political affiliation.” The authors assume, fairly enough, that congressmen who broke bread together developed personal bonds with one another that, in turn, led to more common views, compromises, and similar voting.
(Technical note: The authors look at whether “self-selection”–congressmen picking boardinghouses based on the other roomers’ voting records–explained their findings. The answer is no.)
This study suggests that the personal connections, or lack of them, that Panetta and others point to as the source of, and thus a remedy for, political polarization are indeed important in moderating differences. Yet, personal ties could at best only moderate. After all, this era of boarding house comity still ended in Bloody Kansas, secession, and Civil War.