Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates

By Madison Mangels '19 | March 28, 2018

Danielle Thomsen speaking

On Thursday, February 22, Dr. Danielle Thomsen spoke about her latest book Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates.

Thomsen is an Assistant Professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2014. Prior to her position at Syracuse University, Thomsen was a post-doctoral fellow in the Political Institutions and Public Choice Program at Duke University. She has been the recipient of over ten fellowships and grants including the E.E. Schattschneider Award in 2015 for the best dissertation in American politics. 

In her presentation, Thomsen presented research that shows a steady drop-off in the number of ideological moderates in Congress. Thomsen stressed how troubling this was by reflecting on how just 40 years ago, over half the members of both houses of Congress identified with the ideological center. 

Thomsen says this lack of moderate representation has serious implications on the process of policy-making and often has led to refusal on both sides of the aisle to compromise, which has hindered the forward movement of important legislation pertaining to a wide variety of issues prominent in politics today such as immigration, paid employment leave, and tax reform.

Thomsen’s research also included speaking to former members of Congress who ran as ideological moderates and decided not to run for reelection. When speaking to these former members of Congress, Thomsen discovered that these members were effectively isolated by their own party. For example, Blue Dog Democrats recalled being ignored, and even bullied at times, by their far-left fellow coworkers in Congress. 

According to Thomsen, the forcing out of ideological moderates, if continued, will continue to be detrimental to the political process in Congress. The gap between the Republican and Democratic parties will continue to widen, making it nearly impossible to compromise on issues.