Oh, that conventional wisdom. It’s a security blanket for pundits and the lazy man’s way to become an “expert” on just about anything.
But sometimes, we discover that conventional wisdom is a load of hornswoggle. For instance, it’s been de rigueur for Democrats to claim unequivocally that Republicans have been moving farther and farther to the right, thus polarizing our politics and creating gridlock in Washington, while Democrats have become rational, reasonable, and centrist.
In the immortal words of Independence Day‘s Defense secretary, Albert Nimziki: “That’s not entirely accurate.”
At least since the 2010 midterms, it’s been a liberal talking point that Republican extremism is to blame for political polarization and gridlock. In the old days, the argument goes, Republicans were a moderate party, but over the past generation the GOP has been gradually taken over by its far-right wing. Before the last GOP debate, for example, the Center for American Progress launched a “Right of Reagan” campaign to supposedly show “how the extremism of today’s Republican presidential candidates sets them apart from their conservative idol.”
But as the debates over issues like the $15 minimum wage, healthcare, and universal preschool have already shown, the Democrats have moved to the left at least as quickly as the Republicans have moved to the right. After all, Hillary Clinton has to renounce a good chunk of her husband’s positions to be competitive in the 2016 primary.
Now, a paper on polarization and inequality released in August by political scientists from Princeton, Georgetown, and the University of Oregon (and highlighted this week in a Washington Postarticle) provides some empirical evidence that Democratic Party’s leftward drift is more pronounced than the GOP’s rightward drift, at least at the state level. The study’s overall argument is that income inequality has increased political polarization at the state level since the 1990s. But the authors find that that this happens more by moving state Democratic parties to the left than by moving state Republican parties to the right. As the Democratic Party lost power at the state level over the past 15 years, it also effectively shed its moderate wing. Centrist Democrats have increasingly lost seats to Republicans, “resulting in a more liberal Democratic party” overall. The authors find that the ideological median of Republican legislators has shifted much less.
One study does not a thesis prove, but the paper is certainly interesting, and it coheres with the trends we’ve been seeing. So while Democrats from President Obama on down often give the impression that their party is moderate and in line with public opinion while Republicans have undergone a sudden jolt to the right, it may not be that simple. Our discussions about polarization need to reflect the fact that it is a bipartisan affair.
In 2012, political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann wrote a book blaming Republican extremism for every problem in Washington. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks quoted a study that purportedly showed that since 1973, Republicans have become far more ideologically extreme than Democrats.
Shortly before Rep. West went off the rails with his accusations of communism in the Democratic Party, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have long tracked historical trends in political polarization, said their studies of congressional votes found that Republicans are now more conservative than they have been in more than a century. Their data show a dramatic uptick in polarization, mostly caused by the sharp rightward move of the GOP.
If our democracy is to regain its health and vitality, the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change. In the short run, without a massive (and unlikely) across-the-board rejection of the GOP at the polls, that will not happen. If anything, Washington’s ideological divide will probably grow after the 2012 elections.
And indeed it has — except it’s the Democrats who have become more radical and more extreme. How can anyone with any sense claim that doubling the minimum wage isn’t radical? Or passing a 2000-page health insurance reform law isn’t extreme?
It is the Democrats who claim they want to “transform” America. GOP “extremism” is, for the most part, a reaction to the radicalization of our politics by Democrats who have sought at every turn for the last 7 years to circumvent the Constitution to achieve their extremist goals.
While this one study doesn’t prove anything, it is certainly something to be discussed and analyzed. Perhaps this is one Democratic talking point that they will be forced to drop in light of empirical evidence.