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The Delegate Paradox: Why Polarized Politicians Can Represent Citizens Best

Many advocate for political reforms intended to resolve apparent disjunctures between politicians’ ideologically polarized policy positions and citizens’ less polarized policy preferences. We show these apparent disjunctures can arise even when politicians represent their constituencies well and that resolving them would likely degrade representation. These counterintuitive results arise from a paradox whereby polarized politicians can best represent constituencies composed of citizens with idiosyncratic preferences. We document this paradox among US House members, often criticized for excessive polarization. We show that if House members represented their constituencies’ preferences as closely as possible, they would still appear polarized. Moreover, current members nearly always represent their constituencies better than counterfactual less polarized members. A series of experiments confirms that even “moderate” citizens usually prefer ostensibly polarized representatives to many less polarized alternatives.