Who does Congress represent?

Very nice post from Dylan Matthews at Vox summarizing PS research on who Congress really represents.  Short version: it’s complicated.  Medium version: yeah, it’s complicated, but generally, Democrats do a much better job of representing middle-class voters than do Republicans.  Excerpt version:

But the picture varies a lot based on party. Democratic representatives provided populist representation: They matched the views of their poor constituents more than those of their rich constituents. The opposite was true for Republicans: Republicans matched their rich constituents better than their poor ones.

But Republicans were less likely to match with their constituents’ ideologies overall — whether those constituents were poor or wealthy. A wealthy constituent would get about the same level of ideology match from a Democrat or a Republican. It’s just that the match would be on the low end compared to other constituents for a Democrat, and on the high end for a Republican.

“When lower-income individuals have a Democratic House representative, they appear to receive much more representation than when they have a Republican representative,” Rhodes and Schaffner write. “But the party of the representative matters hardly at all for wealthier Americans.”…

What does it all mean?

The four papers all show something crucial when thinking about how Congress and policymakers represent the public: party matters. Rather than Democrats and Republicans both sharing views with the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, you see a more complex pattern. Especially on economic issues, it appears that Democrats respond more to the poor and middle class, and Republicans more to the affluent.

Still, their findings are hardly identical. Saying that Republicans represent the rich, while Democrats represent the poor and/or middle class, is a simplification. Rigby and Maks-Solomon find that Democrats overrepresent the rich on social issues. Grossmann and Isaac find that opinions of advocacy and business groups are often more predictive of the positions congressional leaders and presidents take than public opinion is, even public opinion of the rich alone.

But there’s a big caveat here: It’s not actually clear that Republican and Democratic senators are purposefully taking their views from the public, even when politicians’ views match their constituents’. It’s also possible — even likely — that it’s happening the other way: Politicians areshaping the public’s views. That helps explain why Democratic constituents align their views so closely with Democratic senators, and similarly for Republican constituents.

And because of the ideological sorting that has taken place in Congress over the past 50 years — with the dying out of both conservative Southern Democrats and liberal-leaning Northern Republicans — voters’ responsiveness to elite opinion has arguably exacerbated polarization at the voter level.

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