I have been thinking lately about how the ideological distributions of individual contributors within certain industries might help illuminate the polarized state of U.S. politics. There are two types of distributions that could implicate an industry in abetting polarization. The first distribution is what political scientists would think of as typical of polarization, a bimodal distribution in which individual cluster at each extreme but very few locate in the center. The second is a unimodal distribution located at either extreme. Both distributions are characterized by a preference for extreme candidates over moderates, but the former indicates that members are ideologically divided while the later indicates that most members have similar ideological positions. This distinction is interesting because there is good reason to suspect that the ideologically aligned industries interact with the political system differently than their ideologically divided counterparts.
Industries Aligned with the Left (2008)
Industries Aligned with the Right (2008)
The figures above display the ideological distributions of industries that I refer to as ideologically aligned—that is, composed of members that are ideologically extreme but skew overwhelmingly to the left or right. Living up to frequent accusations by right-wing commentators, the unholy trio of Hollywood, the print media, and academia do indeed appear to be overrun by liberals, with lawyers and online computer services (e.g. Google) not far behind. On the other end of the spectrum, members of the oil and gas, construction, insurance, agricultural and automotive industries are overwhelmingly conservative. Although the ideological orientation of these industries is not much of a surprise, the extent to which these industries favor the extreme, rather than moderate, wings of each party far surpassed my expectations. Some of the distributions more closely resemble what I would expect from occupations that were subject to the spoils system–for instance, US postmasters prior to the Pendleton Act–than major contemporary industries with no official partisan ties.
Granted, ideologically aligned occupations are not the norm. Most industries have enough members on each side of the spectrum to be distinctly bimodal. Some of these industries have distributions that lean heavily in one direction or the other, while others are more balanced. Health care professionals, real estate, investment bankers, and commercial bankers, each at the center of recent political battles over government intervention and reform, are perhaps the best examples of deeply but roughly evenly divided occupations.
Ideologically Divided Industries (2008)
So what might we take away from this? Ansolabehere, De Figueriedo and Snyder (2003) have argued that the increasing proportion of campaign funds raised from individual contributors has helped safeguard our democracy by counteracting the influence of special interests and their PACs. This line of argument help push provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that froze the contribution limits for PACs at $5000 per election, while doubling the contribution limit for individuals to $2000 which was thereafter pegged to inflation.
The existence of ideologically aligned industries brings pause to the notion that money raised from individuals is somehow less corrupting or less influential than money raised from PACs. Insofar as candidates are able to identify those industries vital to their fundraising efforts, why would the incentives to support policy that favors growth in those industries be all that different because the money came from individuals rather than PACs?
Strangely enough, the comprehensive disclosure requirements for individual contributors may have had an effect opposite its intention. Rather than serving primarily to stymie backroom quid pro quid deals, it may have helped solved a coordination problem between legislators and aligned industries, by providing the means for those occupations to signal that enacting policy that favors their industry will fill their preferred party’s campaign coffers while only making a dent in the opposition’s coffers. This may seem less insidious than deals hashed out smoke-filled rooms, but as far as the public is concerned, the effects on policy probably are not all that different.
Ideologically aligned industries might also fan the flames of polarization by encouraging politicians to write-off entire industries as their de-facto opposition. This could manifest itself in mostly harmless ways. For example Senator McCain can get away with dusting off his favorite (and only?) lawyer joke on late night talk shows and stump speeches, while a cash-strapped Democratic presidential hopeful would be better advised to stump against corn subsidies on public health grounds than deride lawyers or other professionals.
Nevertheless, it could also rear its ugly head in policy disputes. Consider the ongoing fight over healthcare. Tort reform is one of the few clear opportunities for bipartisanship. Despite Republicans having oversold tort reform as a solution to keeping health care down costs, such reform would have at least had a marginal effect on costs and would have made the health reform bill much more attractive to the medical industry. (One recent survey found 92 percent of doctors in favor of malpractice reform, while 85 percent reported that the threat of malpractice lawsuits has prevented them from practicing medicine properly—it was commissioned by Jackson Health Care Services, so I would take the results with a grain of salt. A more direct estimate of the potential savings from health care tort reform can be found in the NYT’s Economix blog.) Yet Democratic lawmakers have continually dismissed tort reform with the flimsy explanation that medical malpractice is not a big deal because it only constitutes about 2-3 percent of medical costs. This is despite the notion that tort reform seems to be a natural complement to the White House’s early proposals to eliminate waste by freeing doctors to perform tests only when they deem them medically necessary rather resorting to “defensive medicine” to minimize legal liability.
One question to ponder is whether ideologically aligned industries have contributed more to the pattern of polarization than ideologically divided industries. My initial thought on the matter is that ideologically aligned industries have help blaze a path for congressional polarization by supporting extreme candidates while other industries merely responded to the increasingly polarized candidate pool. Once I have a scaling that includes a time-trend of all election cycles going back to 1980, it should be possible to track how the ideological distributions industries have changed over time and examine whether some industries acted as a catalyst to polarization while others merely adjusted to it.