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Infographic: Surprise! Congress Has Almost No Independent Thinkers

Visualizing voting cohorts reveals that very few politicians will reach across the aisle.

Infographic: Surprise! Congress Has Almost No Independent Thinkers

We paint a pretty broad brush with our politics. Party affiliations that are so important that they appear on every election ballot right next to someone’s name meaning that the party is, in essence, just as important as the person. But could this really be true? Are all politicians such partisan sheep?

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In a word, yes, at least according to this enlightening data visualization by Adrien Friggeri, who analyzed the Senate roll call votes from the first congress to today. Using voting patterns coupled with a social cohesion algorithm he’d built, Friggeri was able to create a political timeline. Individual senators make up each thread, and these threads weave into a tapestry group trends.

Click to zoom.

Well, they sort of weave into two distinct tapestries–one for Democrats and one for Republicans–a distinction that Friggeri’s algorithm created from voting history data alone. The parties really do stick together, flocking to one another like sheep. Except for the fun times when they don’t.

In the 110th Congress, a group of 11 Republicans broke from their party in protest of the Bush administration. In the graphic, they appear like a mini solar flare–parts of which quickly get back in line following President Obama’s election. But not everyone always gives in to their party. “Zell Miller (who I did not know of beforehand) made me recheck the algorithm and data quite a few times because I did not understand why this Democrat was repeatedly in the mainly Republican group,” Friggeri tells Co.Design. “After reading his Wikipedia page, I understood why.”

Click to zoom.

It’s no surprise that Miller would be a worrisome datapoint without context. Miller, who appears as a single strange of blue in a stream of red, was the Democrat who infamously broke off to support President Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 election. In Friggeri’s visual, Miller is an undeniable defector (or potentially some sort of covert spy, which history has proven he wasn’t) because the political parties simply don’t mix in this way.

Another interesting point that Friggeri discovered can’t be seen on his chart, as he cropped the timeline for sake of readability. “The average agreement between all senators is much higher now than it was in the 1900s and 1950s,” he explains–which means that the senators in each camp are far more in-line with their party’s rhetoric.

Is that because discourse is dying? Are our camps so entrenched that no one dares leave their respective foxhole? Does the general quest to stay in the good graces of one’s party–to lock in endorsements and campaign funding–outweigh their individualism? Of course it does. We already suspected it. But seeing it visualized, plain as day, you pretty much lose any hope for rational, independent thinking from the government.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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