Consider, for instance, the experience of the No Labels “working group” that calls itself the “Problem Solvers,” which tried to find common ground at a moment of extreme polarization and gridlock:
Every morning during the 16-day government shutdown, about two dozen members of the Problem Solvers would gather in the Rio Room in a windowless basement at the Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant three blocks from the Capitol.
Some days, they met twice a day over coffee and fruit platters, brainstorming proposals to put forth, how they could help the other party save face, and ways to push leadership to end the gridlock. Smaller groups met in lawmakers’ homes and offices.
But the Problem Solvers could not come to a consensus about a path forward. Some wanted to repeal a medical device tax required by the Affordable Care Act as a compromise to Republican demands to gut the president’s health care law. Others thought that would be giving up too much—or not enough.
At one point during the impasse, Senator Collins, the moderate Maine Republican, was invited to meet with the group to discuss the medical device compromise proposal. She did not seem especially impressed.
“I think No Labels is very well intended, but I have not found them to be particularly effective in achieving their goals,” Collins said. “I think they’re still finding their way
We shouldn’t be surprised that the “Problem Solvers” couldn’t actually solve any problems—Congress is deeply divided as a result of structural factors that go far beyond the hours of the House cafeteria. Though the decline of socialization may play some small role in the rise of polarization and partisanship, there’s no credible evidence suggesting it is a driving force. Indeed, cross-party socialization in Congress is likely to have declined partly because of growing polarization (as well as air travel and fundraising demands) rather than the other way around. As the Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos pointed out, blaming the lack of cross-party socializing for polarization is a classic inferential error in which people confuse the manifestation of a phenomenon with the phenomenon itself.
Unfortunately, this story is hard to tell using the tools of journalism, while the socialization hypothesis facilitates vivid anecdotes and narrative. But we should measure laments about what went wrong when members of Congress stopped drinking and hanging out together against the evidence. As Jan’s story shows, good journalists who report on what actually happens when legislators come together over pizza or fruit platters will find little evidence that social contact is enough to bring Washington together.
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