In Pa. politics, polarization isn’t new. But the contempt is | Opinion

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Thomas Koenig

Although COVID-19 has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Pennsylvanians, it has not minimized the vitriol of our politics.

Last spring, Harrisburg’s attention was focused on Rep. Stephanie Borowicz’s, R-Clinton, unwelcoming opening prayer at the special swearing-in ceremony of former Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, the first ever Muslim woman to be elected to the General Assembly.

This spring, Harrisburg has been abuzz with the news that Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, contracted COVID-19 and failed to notify Democratic lawmakers with whom he had been in contact in committee meetings. Meanwhile, the question of wearing a mask to tamper the spread of COVID-19 has devolved into yet another battle of the “culture war” here in the Commonwealth.

Many might instinctively characterize the actions of Borowicz and Lewis and the general climate of hostility in Harrisburg as troubling results of rising “polarization”—the ever growing gap in Republicans’ and Democrats’ political positions. But our deep differences of opinion need not entail overt disrespect for others or wanton disregard for their well-being. Polarization is not our problem. Contempt is.

This past year, I conducted research with the help of Princeton University’s Nolan McCarty and Peter Koppstein to document polarization in the Pennsylvania House since the 1960s.

To do so, we used Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal’s DW-NOMINATE system, which tracks legislators’ roll call votes to estimate where they fall on a liberal-conservative ideology scale. DW-NOMINATE creates median ideology scores for each political party over time and calculates the gap between the two parties’ scores, thereby measuring partisan polarization.

We documented 3,651 roll call votes from the 1965, 1977, and 1989 House sessions to supplement Professor McCarty and Boris Shor’s existing partisan polarization measures for Pennsylvania from 1996 onwards. The results were striking.

(Graphic by Thomas Koenig)

The graph above depicts the difference in party medians—partisan polarization—in the Pennsylvania House from 1965 to 2017.

While partisan polarization has risen since the mid-90s, it is nothing new to Pennsylvania politics. In fact, partisan polarization in 1965 was a bit higher than in 2017. Democrats and Republicans have long been polarized. Polarization is not new in Pennsylvania. Rather, two things have changed.

First, the content of polarization has shifted. Up through the final quarter of the 20th century, political disagreements in Harrisburg were overwhelmingly concentrated on issues of economics.

The fault line between the two parties ran along questions like tax rates, regulations, and economic development. While political debates were high-stakes and could grow contentious in Pennsylvania, they tended to be manifestations of clashes between interests — rich vs. poor, rural vs. urban, interventionism vs. laissez-faire, etc.

In recent decades, this has changed.

More of our political disagreement has become concentrated around the “culture wars”—complex questions of morality, liberty, justice, and biology. The debates surrounding issues such as abortion rights, gun rights, and gay rights pit citizens’ most fundamental values of right and wrong against one another. There is less room for compromise over these bedrock questions of rights and morality than, say, tax rates.

The shifting content of our political debate here in Pennsylvania has helped bring about the second pivotal change in our politics: the partisan contempt that has been flourishing in Harrisburg and among Pennsylvanians as of late. We have allowed our deep disagreements over what is right and what is wrong to metastasize into contempt for one another—a contempt so great that we fail to live up to basic standards of decency and respect as Reps. Borowicz and Lewis did.

We will continue to have our political debates and disagreements, the stakes of which will only heighten as we navigate COVID-19 and the persistence of racial inequity in this country and in this Commonwealth. As we do so, we citizens and our elected representatives serving in Harrisburg must combat the urge to allow our political disagreements, however fundamental, to transform into contempt for one another.

After all, our system of representative democracy is premised on the notion that we all have equal dignity. That equality is the reason why we all have a right to have a say, to work for change, and to enter into the political realm as voters, activists, and politicians.

To sum up: It’s okay to be polarized. It’s okay to disagree. We’ve been doing that for quite some time. Our levels of contempt, though, are altogether new.

The novelty of our contempt ought to give us pause. We know that we can deal with polarization, but whether we can cope with such great mutual contempt between the citizens and legislators of opposing parties remains to be seen. Let’s stop risking it.

Thomas Koenig, a recent Princeton University graduate, writes from Oreland, Pa.