Observers from across the political spectrum agree on one thing: the US Congress is too often victim to polarized partisan gridlock. No doubt these are contentious times in Washington, DC. But how did Congress get this way?
The prevailing narrative argues that today's legislators do not cooperate because they are more ideologically extreme than their predecessors. Republicans are more conservative, Democrats are more liberal, and this ideological polarization leaves little shared ground on which lawmakers can work together.
But Professor Adam Ramey wonders if change of another kind has also taken place in Congress. "While I think there is something to the ideological argument, I also think it is a bit circular," Ramey said. "So we're trying to use a personality paradigm, not to displace the role of ideology, but to explain more."
Ramey, an assistant professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi, is interested in the way legislators make decisions, and how elections, laws, and other constraints affect legislative behavior. "I'm trying to disentangle the way legislators' own policy priorities, the wishes of their districts, and the wishes of their parties all come together and lead to the results we see in Congress," he explained. His current book-length project draws on psychology and computer science, as well as political science. The venture may provide a new explanation of how personality is increasing polarization in Congress.
Ramey raises the example of two Republican senators who are ideologically similar, but very different in legislative behavior: Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. Both are conservative, both are of Cuban ancestry, both are young, energetic, and well-educated, and both were elected with strong Tea Party support. But they behave quite differently. "Ted Cruz will filibuster on the Senate floor and block legislation proposed by Democrats," Ramey noted. "Rubio, on the other hand, is much more willing to play ball…to work towards a common goal."
There are many theories of personality, but the most widely accepted one identifies five dimensions of personality, called the Big Five, known by the acronym OCEAN — Openness to new experiences, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each is a spectrum: a person may be extremely extroverted or extremely introverted, but most of us are somewhere in between.