State Legislative Policymaking in an Age of Political Polarization

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This report,  State Legislative Policymaking in an Age of Political Polarization, summarizes the results of a study of political polarization in state legislatures and its effects on policymaking.

A team of NCSL staff and academic political scientists conducted more than 250 interviews of legislators, staff and other participants in 10 state legislatures during 2015-16 legislative sessions. We found evidence of significant—and increasing—polarization in most of these 10 state legislatures comparable to that experienced by Congress. We concluded, however, that most of the legislatures in our sample were able to negotiate differences and reach settlements on major policy issues like budgets, transportation and higher education under conditions of political polarization and divided government.

Factors that legislators believe mitigate the effects of polarization on policymaking, especially when comparing themselves to Congress, include:

  • State constitutions and rules such as single subject requirements for bills, limited sessions with effective deadlines, requirements for balanced budgets, and the fair and consistent application of rules.
  • Governors and legislative leaders who are able to see the big picture, communicate and work together effectively, and make efforts to treat the minority party fairly and value their input.
  • Empowered committees that deliberate effectively and make efforts to incorporate minority party ideas.
  • Personal relations, cultures and traditions among legislators that promote interparty communication and cooperation and engender trust and respect.
  • Nonpartisan staff.
  • A determination to get things done, often expressed as “We’re not D.C.”

We also identified factors that exacerbate the effects of political polarization on policymaking. They include leaders who take ideological, uncompromising positions, the 24-hour news cycle and social media that impede deliberation and the open exchange of ideas, and a decline in cross-party friendships, socializing and collaboration.

Our research produced a number of useful ideas for state legislators and members of Congress on how to function as effective policymakers under conditions of political polarization.