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.
Our intuition suggests that part of the reason why we observe so much contention in Congress today, why we observe so little collegiality and so much confrontation, is that the personality of Congress is changing.
Computer scientists have developed techniques to analyze individuals' language and use what they find to assess OCEAN-based personality. For example, it turns out that people who use the personal pronoun "I" frequently tend to be more extroverted than people who do not.
Using these findings, his team will assess the language used by all 535 members of the House and Senate — speeches, press releases, and tweets, for example— to create personality profiles for each member of Congress. Legislators will get a "personality score" for each year they have been in Congress. The findings will show how the personalities of individual legislators have changed over that period and how the composite personality of Congress has changed, too.
This is where the political science comes in. The researchers will then compare legislators' personality profiles to their Congressional behavior. Do they co-sponsor bills? Do they habitually vote against legislation proposed by the other party? And so on. Comparing the two sets of data will show if there is any correlation between personality type and legislative behavior.
Over the past 17 years, Ramey and his team have identified shifts in the personalities of members of both the House and Senate. They have noticed a decline in both conscientiousness and openness to new experiences. Legislators have also become more extroverted, and "the correlations between extroversion and ideological polarization is extremely strong," Ramey said. "Our intuition suggests that part of the reason why we observe so much contention in Congress today, why we observe so little collegiality and so much confrontation, is that the personality of Congress is changing."
The project began as an investigation of voters, not legislators: do voters choose candidates with a certain personality type? But even if they do, it's not clear why that would matter very much. So Ramey decided to start at the other end of the issue, "to determine if personality traits matter for how legislators make legislative decisions. And once we had firm grounding there, we could say, 'Of course voters should care about the personalities of the people they elect, because personality determines how legislators make decisions.'"
In the future, he is interested in building tools to help voters gain a better understanding of candidates. Imagine an app that could suggest local candidates who match your political beliefs and personality type. This would be particularly helpful for "down-ballot" races, for offices such as city councilor or sheriff, where it may be hard for voters to learn about candidates.
Ramey's work, with its potential to help us better understand congressional performance, is clearly important. "In the last couple years," Ramey said, "I've been to Thailand, I've been to Finland, I've been to France. And everywhere I go, people talk about the US Congress. And not in a good way…there are a lot of problems in Washington."
This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).