Olympia Snowe: Political Polarization Will Turn Women Off

By Bryce Covert |

Snowe’s reasons for leaving are an increasingly divided and uncivil Congress. That will make many women think twice about running in the first place.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe announced late yesterday that she won’t be seeking reelection for her seat. This came as a surprise to a lot of people. As Steve Kornacki says, “This is not a Joe Lieberman situation; Snowe was not out of options.” She had a good chance of winning the election and had a viable option to run as an independent. However, “evidently she was out of patience with what her political life had become,” he notes.

That’s gleaned from her statement, in which she explains:

I do find it frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.

With my Spartan ancestry I am a fighter at heart; and I am well prepared for the electoral battle, so that is not the issue. However, what I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be. Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term…

I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America.

Jonathan Chait sees some evidence in her remarks that she’s headed for a third party candidacy. But for now, let’s take her at her word: she’s leaving her office because of increased polarization.

As Ezra Klein points out, increased polarization doesn’t have to go hand in hand with increased rancor, but it sure has in our current system. The increasing ideological divide has left us more and more gridlocked. Invective is thrown by both sides. Snowe points to “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.” This is a huge problem for getting things done politically, but it also represents a large hurdle for getting more women into office.

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A study that I’ve written about before took a deep look at the reasons that women don’t run for office. They came up with seven key reasons, but three of those relate to an increasingly acrimonious and divided political body.

Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

Modern campaigns are shaped by the polarization that goes on in Congress — Snowe makes reference to this problem both on the Hill and on the trail. In the study, women showed an aversion to many of the less glamorous activities of campaigning, but the biggest differential was for “potentially having to engage in a negative campaign.” Sixteen percent of men were deterred by that idea; that number jumps to 28 percent for women. If translated to the actual political arena once they’re in, women are going to be less interested in the bile tossed from one side of the aisle to the other. That’s Snowe’s main complaint: she doesn’t want to operate in a body that yells at itself without moving anything forward.

Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

Snowe says she’s a fighter. But a more polarized and gridlocked Congress will mean a more combative — and thus competitive — environment that will turn women off. They are at least 25 percent less likely than men to report being competitive, having a thick skin, and willing to take risks. Why would they sign themselves up to enter Congress at a time that, as Snowe says, we’ve drifted away from an “era of civility”?

Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

Based purely on perception, women were much more likely to view their local campaigns as competitive. This also translates into the actual machinations of Congress. Women consider the current environment, deduce that the competition is fierce, and decide to stay out. Snowe feels she’ll make a bigger difference on the outside, and many women may feel the same way.

There are other reasons women don’t run, such as perceived gender bias, the need to care for children, and few of them being approached to run. But as Congress becomes more and more polarized, we run a higher risk of women sitting it out.

Bryce Covert is the former Editor of Next New Deal and current Economics Editor of ThinkProgress.