The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best

The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best

By Douglas Ahler, David Broockman
April 24,2017Working Paper No. 3517

Many argue for political reforms intended to resolve apparent disjunctures between politicians’ ideologically polarized policy positions and citizens less-polarized policy preferences. Here we show such apparent disjunctures can arise even when politicians represent their constituencies well, and that resolving them would likely degrade political representation. These counterintuitive results arise from a paradox whereby polarized politicians can best represent constituencies comprised of citizens with idiosyncratic preferences. We document this paradox among U.S. House Members, often criticized for excessive polarization. We show that if House Members represented their constituencies’ preferences as closely as possible, they would still be polarized. Moreover, current Members nearly always represent their constituencies better than counterfactual less-polarized Members. A series of experiments confirms that even ‘moderate’ citizens often prefer polarized representatives to less-polarized alternatives.