POLITICS
12/04/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2013

Sorry Guys, Congressional Polarization Can't Be Fixed By Lawmakers Hanging Out More

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, political science shaolin warrior Brendan Nyhan takes up a matter that various pundits tend to obsess over: Would this age of partisan backbiting end if our lawmakers just hung out together more, and had drinks or steak dinners with one another? Sorry, no. Nyhan cites a recent Boston Globe story that rather deftly "undercuts" this "unpersuasive theory"... that was advanced, earlier, in other Boston Globe stories!

The notion that our lawmakers could accomplish much more together if they socialized more is a really pretty one, born from the belief that a relatively pleasant, mid-20th century period in which polarization declined was somehow normative. But as Nyhan notes, "It’s an attractive idea -- but one that has little empirical support." Indeed, as his earlier forays into this wilderness bear out, the increased polarization is actually a return to the norm, and the brief respite from this perceived polarity was "driven almost entirely by the issue of race, which created a bloc of conservative Southern Democrats who acted as a virtual third party for much of this time." So, if you're seeking a return to these halcyon days, remember -- you are seeking to return to a weird period in which the politics of "racial apartheid in the South" were the impetus for all of that "bipartisanship."

Nyhan proceeds from there, like so:

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.

In the Boston Globe story that Nyhan praises, reporter Tracy Jan notes that the silly little group known as No Labels has dug itself in rather intractably over the idea that what really needs to be done is for lawmakers to "meet and socialize across party lines." Jan notes this is a theory that has, in practice (and unsurprisingly), netted No Labels a big fat goose egg in terms of achieving "a single item from its relatively modest list of goals."

Lord knows those No Labels kids are trying, though! They've roped a bunch of legislators together, called them Problem Solvers, and sent them to the Mexican restaurant Tortilla Coast to "solve problems" -- presumably because Mexican restaurant Lauriol Plaza is overrated.

Go ahead and browse over to No Labels' Problem Solver team. Hover your mouse over the pictures of these esteemed individuals and learn their names. It won't take you long to surmise that the whole thing may not work so well.

For instance! One of the people on the Problem Solver team is Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Begich is one of the co-sponsors of the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013. Right next to Begich on the Problem Solver grid is dedicated Tea Party Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.). Lots of people agree that Social Security is a "problem" that needs to be "solved." But ask yourself: How many steak dinners would Begich and Bentivolio have to have together to come to a mutually-agreed-upon position on Social Security?

A thousand? A million? Are there even enough cattle on Earth available to slaughter to bring these two men together over ribeyes? Bentivolio treats the "chemtrails conspiracy" as if it's a credible thing, for God's sake. Which raises the question, "Whose idea was it to include this man on a team of bipartisan Problem Solvers in the first place?" Surely a rational adult, bent on creating a credible bipartisan working group, would politely tell Bentivolio, "We appreciate your interest, Kerry, but we don't think you are a good fit. Good luck in your future endeavors, with that chemtrails stuff."

This is not to say that we should accept vicious partisan infighting as something that can't be criticized, or criticize those pleasant times when our Congresscritters come together in a social environment. It simply means that we are not going to bring about an age of bipartisan comity simply by sending our legislators to the Hawk And Dove every night.

In recent years, lawmakers have made a really big deal about sitting for State Of The Union addresses in bipartisan seating. They even now ask each other out to these events, as if it was some sort of Sadie Hawkins Dance. This demonstrates that "being able to tolerate each other's presence for an hour or so" is right about where your lawmakers are at right now. Take the message. Baby steps, people.

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