Why is the California state legislature so polarized?

Check out this chart, from a Measuring American Legislatures post on the possibilities for the upcoming NJ Senate appointment:

What’s going on with California?  There are other states where the Democrats and Republicans in the statehouse are separated by a wide gap in this score (I live in one of them) but California is in a different realm.  To my eye, it looks like it has the most liberal Democratic caucus and the most conservative Republican caucus of any state legislature in the country.  Why?

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9 thoughts on “Why is the California state legislature so polarized?

  1. wb says:

    I think my simple model of politics can explain this.

    1) I assume that politics is described by one parameter only (left-right or Dem-Rep etc.)
    2) I assume that the distribution of this parameter in the general public follows a Gaussian distribution.
    3) The motivation to go into politics increases with the distance of one’s left-right parameter to the mean. In other words, the more extreme the political opinions of a person, the more motivated she/he is to go into politics.

    Multiplying 3) with 2) already explains the two-peak distribution you see for all states.
    So why the larger distance between the two peaks for California?
    My explanation: The motivation curve 3) is flatter for California than the rest of the US. People are in general less motivated to go into politics due to the higher standard of living etc.
    Therefore the extremes play a larger role on both sides, because only people with extreme views are motivated enough to go into politics instead of to the beach …

  2. byesac says:

    The “standard of living” in the San Joaquin is very different than that in SF or LA.

  3. Huh. California’s government has been really dysfunctional, maybe that’s pushed people to whatever pole makes sense to them? (And there’s the added complication of California needing a supermajority for lots of stuff, not sure how that might play into things.) I’m not sure why that would push people apart than towards the center, though.

    We’ve also recently changed the way redistricting works, moving it to an allegedly nonpartisan commission. So maybe if you have your districts match cities, you find that people really are pretty polarized? I also heard that liberal interests managed to affect the nonpartisan commission more than conservative interests, so maybe California is one of the few states where the gerrymandering is done from a liberal point of view, and this is what you get if you combine that with a liberal population? Though if that’s the case, you’d expect lots of mildly liberal districts plus a few extremely conservative ones.

    I dunno – all I’m really doing is reciting some things that are weird about California politics, with hopes that one of them might explain the graph, but none of them really do.

  4. Daniel Biss says:

    I don’t know anything about the California legislature and have no real guess, but without speculating about what the cause is, I wonder if it’s similar to whatever mechanism that’s allegedly created an analogous phenomenon in DC. After all, California by virtue of its size and its diversity might be expected to have a legislature that’s much more like the US Congress than is any other state’s.

  5. Here’s my stab at this: California overall is among the most liberal states (Obama won it both times by > 23 points) so the fact that its Democrats are the farthest to the left isn’t surprising at all. The question then is just why are the Republicans so far to right (in contrast to the situation in MA, NJ, NY, etc). My guess is it’s a combination of two things. First, the GOP is a very small minority (< 31%) in both houses of the CA legislature so they can't even stop things that require various supermajorities anymore, and so they have no incentive to track to the center to try to gain control one of the houses. Second, until the commission thing that David mentions, my understanding is that two parties colluded to gerrymander everyone on both sides of the asile into very safe districts while roughly preserving the balance of power.

  6. Maybe they chose an ample divisor class in the legislature.

  7. Tom Church says:

    Nathan’s explanation is closest, in my opinion. Certainly this is not just a function of size.

  8. quasihumanist says:

    One factor yet uncommented upon: California legislative districts contains significantly more people than legislative districts in any other state. I wonder if that contributes.

  9. Jim Stassi says:

    Great book by Seth Masket, called “No Middle Ground” (2009) on this very subject. Masket attributes polarization to strong independent party organizations that exert local influence over primaries. Although Masket fails to mention another variable, that is, the redistricting effort in early 2000, which made most districts essentially safe for either reps or dems. The reuslt: more extreme candidates win the primaries so as not to split votes with a more moderate opponent. Take the scenario where the dem and the rep are both moderate. who wins? However, in a rep district where the rep is more conservative and the dem is moderate, risk of maintaining the seat is minimized by electing a more moderate candidate.

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