Tures: Is Congress becoming more moderate?
Published 1:03 am Saturday, January 21, 2017
For years, we’ve heard how Congress is getting increasingly much more partisan, and increasingly less moderate. But is that still the case? My undergraduate students answered that question, and here are our findings.
Several years ago, I posed this similar question to my students. They examined articles on congressional voting, researched the members of Congress, compared their voting scores, published the data, and presented it at the Georgia Political Science Association. We made the surprising finding that while the number of Congressional moderates was sharply declining across the country, the South had more moderate scores.
The student presenters faced some surprisingly withering questions from professors and graduate students at the conference. Usually undergraduates get a pass, especially because it is their first conference. But the students stood their ground, and defended themselves very well. As a result, the GPSA organizers honored them with the McBrayer Award for the best conference paper, a proud moment for our political science program.
As the students conducted their research this year, they didn’t just hit Google sites to look up random Internet sites. They tracked down scholarly articles, reviewing some pretty challenging material from Proquest, Academic Search Complete, and other online databases that LaGrange College’s Lewis Library offers.
When it came to analyzing the data, the college students went to the American Conservative Union website, which contains a series of rankings for members of Congress. Representatives and Senators are scored on a 0-100 scale, with zeroes reflecting pure liberals and 100 meaning a perfect conservative voting record. For our research, we looked at whether the member of the House or Senate had a voting record between 25 percent conservative and 75 percent conservative, in order to be considered a congressional moderate. I divided up the work for all the students, so each student had several states across five years: 2015, 2005, 1995, 1985, and 1975.
And here is what we found. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that while a third of the U.S. Congress could be considered moderate back in 1975 and 1985, the number fell by roughly 10 percentage points over the next 10 years, to 24 percent in 1995. By 2005, it had fallen about another 10 percentage points to 15.61 percent. That’s pretty much what we found several years ago with our award-winning research project.
But then something unexpected happened. We found that the number of Congressional moderates rebounded, after decades of decline. Now, 21.56 percent of members cast ballots along moderate lines in 2015.
Those numbers are likely to generate some controversy when we present them at a conference in 2017, just as our presentation did several years ago, finding the South to be more moderate than the rest of the country. But our undergraduates are tough enough to take the challenge. Our students have used their research skills and presentation abilities to boost careers in law, academia, business, coaching, education, and even campaign work.
So if you’re reading this and you’re the parent of a pretty bright high school student, or you are a teacher or guidance counselor, and you know such a student who would love to do this kind of work, please contact our college at 706-880-8000 and arrange a visit and a tour. Let me know if you’re coming (my number is 706-880-8066) and I’ll arrange for the student and his or her folks to sit in on my class, and join right in. But be prepared to jump in and do some work, as many of classes involve in-class lab tests of political science material. And if you’re a parent, I’ll work you into the discussion; visiting parents provide a different perspective for our students based upon their experiences. I’ll let you know the topic, so you can be ready to talk about it.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.