For years, liberals have argued that polarization his little to do with the Democratic Partyâ€”which they see as largely centristâ€”and everything to do with a Republican Party, which has moved far to the right since the 1970s. Recent research from political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have measured polarization and ideological shifts in Congress, confirms that theory. According to NPR, theyâ€™ve found that the GOP is more conservative now than itâ€™s been in a century … [m]oreover, Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left, and that goes a long way toward explaining the gridlock of the last three years, during which time Republicans have refused to play ball on everything from economic recoveryâ€”they opposed the stimulus plan, even after signing on to George W. Bushâ€™s plan for boosting the economy in 2008â€”to financial regulation and a health-care-reform bill built on conservative ideas.
I love Jamelle’s blog and I highly recommend you start reading it if you don’t already. But this line of reasoning — which is quite common among the chattering class liberals I know — is one that I find more or less wrong. Now, it’s perfectly correct on the facts; the work of Poole et. al. is not without critics, but it’s widely accepted (and certainly I accept it) that they have an excellent, unbiased statistical measure of these sorts of things, and that we can trust their results. Let there be no doubt that:
1. The congressional GOP has gotten significantly more conservative since 1976.
2. The congressional Democrats have gotten slightly more liberal during the same time period.
3. The ideological gap between the parties is at a local maxima.
What I don’t think follows, however, is the often-presented idea that Democratic positions are now centrist while the Republicans positions are radical outliers. For Jamelle — and for many liberals — the story is quite simple: the Republican Party went off the deep end ideologically. But I don’t think it’s quite that easy. For a lot of reasons. But I only want to discuss one in particular.
Public preferences over policy are not fixed; over time, they change. Often very much so. The key unstated lynchpin of the liberal argument here is that either (a) there’s an absolute ideological scale upon which we can pin individual party ideologies such that we can declare any given party as either centrist or radical at any given time; or (b) there’s not an absolute ideological scale, but current aggregate citizen preferences are very similar, ideologically, to what they were in the 1970′s. Both of those strike me as absurd on their face. There’s no absolute ideological scale. Thinking the income tax rate on millionaires should be 35% just can’t be fixed on the ideological spectrum. It could be liberal or conservative, depending on what year you live in. Even more so, if there were some sort of absolute ideological scale, when were the positions fixed? Anytime before 1900, and both contemporary parties register as radically liberal. If the latter — that positions haven’t changed recently — is true, then how the hell are these radical Republicans winning so many damn elections?
Alternative hypothesis: a large portion of the citizens of the United States got economically more conservative in the last generation. Now, don’t go pulling out all your survey data showing that people really want Medicare or other government services or whatever. That doesn’t matter. What matters is votes, and U.S. citizens have consistently moved economically rightward over the last forty years on the dimension of which candidates they have picked to hold elective federal office. And there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. There’s no rule that the median voter or the centrist position had to forever remain fixed circa 1965, in favor of Great Society liberalism. In fact, Democrats should thank god that’s the case, since it took a tremendous resetting of the centrist positions in America in order for the liberal achievements of the 20th century to take place. Times change. People have different views on government. And despite the way some liberals look at it, those views don’t necessarily have to liberalize over time.
Under this alternative hypothesis, some of the more troubling aspects of modern politics are explainable in ways that put us at ease, rather than sound the systemic alarm bells. Instead of having to torture ourselves trying to figure out by what conspiracy (campaign finance, voter suppression, media bias, gerrymandering) the Republicans keep winning majorities in Congress and taking the Presidency, we can just accept that their policies are highly competitive for the median voter’s vote. Even better, we can stop tying ourselves in knots over whether “democracy still works” or any of that pap. Of course it does. You can say a lot of things about the United States Congress, but what you cannot say is that the Members are not attuned and responsive to the preferences of their constituents. There’s a market for citizen votes, and the allegedly radical brand that the Republicans are selling is doing quite well with the allegedly centrist brand that the Democrats are selling.
That should tell you something.
And that’s sort of the point here. It’s time to get over the long series of ideas that declares the post-1980 GOP the result of anything besides a competitive party program. Yes, Reagan was personally popular. Yes, racism and welfare queens were part of the game. Yes, the economy was terrible in 1980. Yes, redistricting and scandal and rot hurt the Dems in 1994. Yes, George W. Bush was likable on the “have a beer with him” dimension. Yes, the Iraq war was trumped up bullshit. Yes, the Bush administration waved the bloody shirt of 9/11 around like champs. Yes, gay marriage constitutional amendments were on the ballot. Yes, the average person doesn’t understand the ACA. Yes, there’s a racist element to the Tea Party. Yes, the media buried Mike Dukakis and John Kerry. Yes, there’s a partisan media now.
But it still doesn’t add up. Here’s an alternative hypothesis: the political market is working just fine, and the median voter likes what the GOP is selling on economics. Or, to put it as as plainly as it can be put: just forget about the old center. It’s gone. Stop wasting time figuring out what’s broken, and instead start selling your policies. It will probably never be bipartisan 1964 again in your lifetime, with the center of two parties beating up on a bunch of old explicit racists on the wings. And, besides, that was the anomaly. Just accept that we are back to 1880 in American politics — with two very divergent parties pushing two very divergent agendas in response to two sets of constituents that see things very differently, not because either one is evil, but because they have very different interests, and different beliefs about how to achieve the interests that are the same. And that’s there’s nothing wrong with that and nothing broken about the system whatesoever. This is politics in a democracy. The last 50-60 years? That was a rare divergence.
And so I don’t really enjoy arguments like the one Jamelle was making this morning, that the systemic dysfunction of Washington politics is due to an off-the-rails party that won’t compromise with another party, one that occupies the center and is perfectly in line with the median voter. It defies the market logic of elections. And I don’t think it’s particularly productive. As if gridlock in American politics is a new form. Sure, it’s particularly strong right now, but there’s a market correction for that: sweep an election. What’s that, you can’t win a sweep? Why the hell not, if you are a centrist party facing a radical outlier party? Even the Democrats couldn’t screw that up. (I half-kid). And so I’m not at all convinced that “pox on both your houses” is unfair. Is it silly? Yes. Ending gridlock through bipartisan comprise is the kind of thing that actually pleases very few. Gridlock is better solved by elections and clear winners. But while I sympathize with the idea that the supposedly-neutral media is often at fault when one party is clearly causing a policy problem by both are getting blamed (a good example is budget nonsense of the GOP as of late), I don’t think it translates well to the systemic argument against the GOP.
It can only hold the Democrats back to think otherwise, and to fixate on this idea that politics should exist as it were in 1965 or 1984 or whatever. I had an old lefty professor in graduate school who, after the 2004 election, more of less threw his hands up in the air and said, “I used to understand American politics. It used to make sense. Now? I just don’t get it.” He suffered from the problem described herein, the unwillingness to accept that the Democrats aren’t going to have the House forever, that the 1995 election wasn’t a lightning-in-a-bottle outlier, that things weren’t going back to “normal” anytime soon. Because they have been the beneficiaries of this change, Republicans have been quicker to understand all of this. It would serve Democrats well to figure it out, and then accept it, sooner rather than later.
Of course, if you take this view — and I’m presenting the extreme case for it, I suppose — then a question still looms. If the country has gotten so much more economically conservative, then why haven’t the Democrats followed suit? If you look at the Poole et. al. graph again, you can see that between World War II and 1975, both parties appear to have gotten more liberal, during a period that we might say that was reflective of the polity. So what is going on now? Why hasn’t the Democratic line swung back more conservative? Part of it, I think is artifactual; things lke party-switchers and redistricting and the disappearance of the southern conservative democrats all tend to create and/or mask aggregate idelogical change where it may or may not have existed previously. If you take a conservative southern Democrat, have him switch parties without switching ideologies, then the two party lines diverge further despite no change in underlying preferences. So that might be — and in fact probably is — masking some actual Democratic drift toward the right. if the Democrats weren’t moving rightward in the last few decades, they would have gotten killed at the polls.
But it might also be the strategies of the parties themselves. Not only can a citizenry move to the right or left, but you can influence one to do so! This is the other side of the liberal blindspot. How many times did I hear at the Midwest Political Science Association convention this past week the idea that “the GOP is going off a cliff, and they are going to get absolutely destroyed in the next few elections.” Maybe! But parties are not just reflective participants in the voting market; they are also information providers. The Republicans of 1854 were launched by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but they didn’t sit around for six years waiting for the population to grown ever more angry at the potential expansion of slavery westward. They went out there and sold a cause that didn’t originally have majority support in every northern state. You can influence the voters. And so perhaps the GOP is moving huge chunks of voters rightward, while the Democrats are collectively (but not intentionally or explicitly) sitting around, caught between whether they should be moving voters leftward or chasing the Republicans rightward. It’s possible.
And it would also further explain the alternative thesis. Things have changed. Voter opinion has changed. It’s time to stop pretending, writ large, they have not. The anomaly is not going away. Your “normal” was the anomaly.