The Department of Government
The Department of Government

The Gingrich Senators and Senate Polarization

Mon, February 28, 2011

“A fifth desideratum, illustrating the utility of a senate, is the want of a due sense of national character.”

So begins Federalist No. 63 in laying out the case for an upper chamber in the U.S. Congress, a chamber meant to cool partisan passions, to deliberate on and represent a greater national interest.

But no longer. Times have changed, and partisan polarization is as much a part of Senate life as it has become in the more raucous lower House of Representatives. And new research to be published in a forthcoming issue of “The Journal of Politics” by Sean Theriault, associate professor of Government, demonstrates that the post-1978 House did it.

More precisely, Senate polarization has been caused by the Gingrich Senators, the name given by Theriault and coauthor David Rohde, professor at Duke, to Republican senators who began their congressional careers as members of the lower chamber after 1978, the year that former speaker Newt Gingrich was elected to Congress. Beginning with the election of former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the replacement of retiring or defeated senators with Gingrich Senators has steadily polarized the Senate since the early 1980s.

Gingrich’s former colleagues are almost twice as conservative as other Republican senators. Measuring polarization on a scale of zero to one, where zero equals total nonpartisanship and one equals total polarization, Gingrich Senators account for 85% of the increase in Senate polarization since the early 1980s. Accounting for no other factors other than previous service in the House after 1978, Gingrich Senators were 62% more conservative than their Republican colleagues. Even after accounting for the senators’ constituencies, which may drive greater polarization, the mere fact of being Gingrich Senators makes Republican senators 56% more conservative than their fellow partisans.

As of the 112th Congress, 39 Gingrich Senators had served, though 17 of them no longer serve in the current Senate.

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