Research Article: “Dark Parties: Citizens United, Independent-Expenditure Networks and the Evolution of Political Parties”

This is an important (although not yet published) study on the impact of Citizens United in leading to nomination and election of more extreme candidates on the right, thus driving (asymmetric) polarization.

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread

Safeguarding Electoral Integrity: Video prompt for classroom exercise in political participation

I could imagine — at least with a smaller class — showing this video at the beginning of class when covering political participation, and spending the class period working together to take action on the issue. Students would spend 20 minutes researching the issue, finding consensus expert recommendations, spend 10 minutes getting a list of officials to contact, and then the rest of class drafting messages and sending them to the officials. Part of the messages would highlight the importance of voting and other forms of participation for our democratic form of government. Obviously, this would be a bit risky, and it would be hard to get everyone participating — especially in a larger class — but the basics of participation are something easy for students to learn on their own from textbooks, so even if this bombs, they would probably still be fine for their exams. And if it went well, they could learn the content while also improving their sense of efficacy and developing basic political participation skills; and maybe actually making a difference on an important issue.

Link to video

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread

Bowdoin College’s Civic Education Videos: “Founding Principles”

“Narrated by Bowdoin College Government Professor Andrew Rudalevige, [Founding Principles] provides an introductory overview and basic understanding to American government, but one that is crucial to building citizen-leaders, promoting civic engagement, and working toward the common good.”  The Founding Principles website is located here.

Here’s a Table of Contents:

  • Chapter 1: American Governance in Theory and Action
  • Chapter 2: Federalism
  • Chapter 3: Congress

Continue reading

How a Bill Becomes a Law Today (and Why Most Bills Never Do), Ezra Klein’s  “explanatory journalism” venture, is off to a great start. So far, my favorite “articles” have been one called “40 Charts that Explain Money in Politics” and another entitled “Beating the Odds: Why One Bill Made it Through a Gridlocked Congress — and So Many Don’t.” Both are packed full of useful insights into the present state of our political system and policy making process. I highly recommend following the links to these articles and, for that matter, perusing the wealth of insightful content provided at But here I provide an example of the kinds of content they are providing. This is a video they describe as “an updated Schoolhouse Rock lesson for our polarized, dysfunctional Congress.”

Democratic Party Expected to Have Significant Electoral College Advantage in 2016

Political Scientist Ben Highton explains:

If the 2016 presidential vote is evenly split between the parties, which one is more likely to win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency?  I estimate that the Democrats’ chances of winning the Electoral College vote are between 83 and 89 percent, giving them a significant advantage.  This argument contrasts with those who are cautious of a Democratic advantage, such as Jonathan Bernstein and Harry Enten.  The reason I predict such a significant advantage is because of ongoing, long-term trends altering the electoral outlook in a number of key swing states… (keep reading)

Highton offer a more technical explanation of his methodology here.

Does it Matter that Congress is a Millionaire’s Club? Does it Have to Be that Way?

Political scientist Nicolas Carnes answers “yes” and “no”. I highly recommend reading both posts, but here’s a taste:

[L]awmakers from different classes bring different perspectives with them: how they think, how they vote, and the kinds of bills they introduce often depend on the classes they came from. The shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts decisions about the distribution of economic resources, protections, and burdens in favor of the more conservative policies that affluent Americans tend to prefer. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and the tax code is more regressive because working-class Americans are all but absent from our political institutions. . . .

Continue reading

Sixteen-Year-Olds Vote in Maryland Election

Governing magazine reports:

Takoma Park[, Maryland] recently became the first city in the nation to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. Since the law change in May, 134 voters, ages 16 and 17, registered to vote in municipal elections, and 59 cast ballots in November. That means that roughly 44 percent of registered voters in the under-18 voting bloc participated in the city election.

That’s good news for long-term civic engagement, says . . . [Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University], because academic research shows that “voting is habit forming. If you voted in a past election, you tend to vote again.” The question going forward, Levine says, is whether the under-18 voters continue to vote at the same level, or if participation was abnormally high because this was the first time a 16-year-old could vote. When Congress lowered the voting age to 18 in 1972 for federal elections, turnout reached 52 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds, higher than in any year since. Another possibility, Levine says, is that parents and school teachers helped teenagers understand how voting works and what elected city leaders do, which motivated teenagers to vote. [Keep reading]

The ReDistricting Game

The Annenberg Center and Game Innovation Law at the University of Southern California have produced a nifty game for exploring redistricting and gerrymandering. According to their About Page:

The Redistricting Game is designed to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting. . . . By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game allows players to experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system. The game provides a basic introduction to the redistricting system, allows players to explore the ways in which abuses can undermine the system, and provides info about reform initiatives – including a playable version of the Tanner Reform bill to demonstrate the ways that the system might be made more consistent with tenets of good governance. Beyond playing the game, the web site for The Redistricting Game provides a wealth of information about redistricting in every state as well as providing hands-on opportunities for civic engagement and political action.


Is Polarization Caused by Extreme Voters in (Closed) Primaries?

Data from 2008 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, merged with turnout data from Catalist. Graph by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.

A lot of people think that party polarization could be mitigated if states reformed their system of nominating candidates. This is based on the assumption that those who vote in primaries are more ideologically extreme than general-election-only voters. The extreme primary voters, according to this theory, nominate extreme candidates, which leaves the moderate general-election-only voters with no moderate candidates to vote for.  This results in the election of candidates who are more extreme than the majority of voters actually prefer.

John Sides points out that the political science consensus suggests otherwise. Among other things, he points to the chart above, which is based on a large survey of voters in the 2008 election. The data demonstrate that there is in fact little ideological difference between primary and general-election-only voters. For the most part, primary voters are simply more interested in politics than are general-election-only voters:

Those who voted in the primary were clearly more interested in politics but did not have very different views on issues (with the possible exception, for Republicans, of raising taxes on the wealthy).  Other research finds a similar pattern; see here or here or here.   Given these findings, increasing primary turnout would not necessarily create a very different electorate and therefore different incentives for candidates or incumbents. [read the entire post here]


Should / Can we Amend the Constitution to Fix “The Biggest Problem in Politics”?

Ari Joseph offers an interesting proposal: amend the Constitution to outlaw private money in public elections.

Questions to ponder:

(1) Is the author correct that there is actually a problem here to be solved? That is, is the system actually tilted toward the “haves” and against the “have nots”? Is this an altogether bad thing? Is there anything to be said in favor of such a system? Conversely, does the author understate the problem? That is, is the system actually more corrupted and/or unrepresentative than suggested? Explain.

(2) If we could wave a magic wand and pass this proposed amendment, how much more representative of lower and middle class income Americans do you think the system would become? Or would it make no difference or even make the system less representative of those economic classes? Explain.

(3) If the “rules of the game” are presently tilted toward the interests of the few, how could a political movement successfully alter those rules so as to make a more even “playing field”? (And if such a political movement could gain that much power, would the amendment then still be necessary?) Explain.

(4) The author suggests that the elimination of private money from politics would be something of a panacea for all the ills of American democracy. Do you think the author is correct in favoring that particular reform, or are there other reforms — e.g. automatic registration, compulsory voting, proportional representation, reforming the nomination process, elimination of equal state representation in the Senate, elimination of the electoral college, moving from a “presidential” (separation of powers) system to a parliamentary system — that would be more likely to fix the problems pointed to by the author? Explain.