A Computational Analysis of Constitutional Polarization
69 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2019 Last revised: 4 Sep 2019
Date Written: September 2, 2019
This Article is the first to use computational methods to investigate the ideological and partisan structure of constitutional discourse outside the courts. We apply a range of machine-learning and text-analysis techniques to a newly available data set comprising all remarks made on the U.S. House and Senate floors from 1873 to 2016, as well as a collection of more recent newspaper editorials. Among other findings, we demonstrate:
(1) that constitutional discourse has grown increasingly polarized over the past four decades;
(2) that polarization has grown faster in constitutional discourse than in nonconstitutional discourse;
(3) that conservative-leaning speakers have driven this trend;
(4) that members of Congress whose political party does not control the presidency or their own chamber are significantly more likely to invoke the Constitution in some, but not all, contexts; and
(5) that contemporary conservative legislators have developed an especially coherent constitutional vocabulary, with which they have come to “own” not only terms associated with the document’s original meaning but also terms associated with textual provisions such as the First Amendment.
Above and beyond these concrete contributions, this Article demonstrates the potential for computational methods to advance the study of constitutional history, politics, and culture.
Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional politics, constitutional history, digital text analysis, partisan polarization, ideological polarization, Congress
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