Nolan McCarty is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He was formerly the associate dean at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research interests include U.S. politics, democratic political institutions, and political game theory. He is the recipient of the Robert Eckles Swain National Fellowship from the Hoover Institution and the John M. Olin Fellowship in Political Economy. He has co-authored three books: Political Game Theory, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, and Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy. In 2010, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He earned his AB from the University of Chicago and his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University.
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But before succumbing to the notion that jiggered legislative districts are at the root of America’s gridlock and divisiveness, it is worth considering the proposition that I, my co-authors and the many political scientists who have studied the effect of gerrymandering on polarization are not nuts.
In this paper, we attempt to assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link.
The accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.
The evidence undermines the common arguments that reforming legislative districting or primary elections will materially reduce polarization.
Given that the forces that produce polarized politics are deeply embedded in the American political system, opening primaries, eliminating gerrymandering, reforming Congress, and regulating campaign finance are unlikely to provide much relief.