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Is asymmetrical polarization real?
Since the mid-aughts, both parties have mostly shifted left
If you’d asked me about political polarization five or maybe even three years ago, I would have hastily broken in to say that you have to keep in mind this is “asymmetrical polarization” we are looking at.
This is something that clearly popped out of Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal’s quantitative work on measuring congressional ideology with a system called DW-NOMINATE. The popularization of both DW-NOMINATE and the asymmetrical polarization framework was an important part of the Bush/Obama-era blogosphere (see this 2012 David Roberts post from Grist) which did a lot to bring cutting-edge political science research to a bigger audience. The basic idea here is that from Truman to Obama, Democrats only became slightly more liberal, and that was mostly just a function of purging southern conservatives from their ranks.
Republicans, by contrast, became far more right-wing.
I still think this may have been a good description of the past of American politics, but I no longer think it does well to characterize current dynamics — and people who sympathize more with the Democratic Party owe it to themselves to be a little more self-critical about how well such a flattering finding holds up.
As I wrote in “Republicans’ Unhinged Moderation,” if you want to argue that the GOP is both crazier than the Democratic Party and also acting crazier than it did in the recent past, then I agree. But this increasingly loopy version of the Republican Party is also mostly more moderate on policy than the Bush-era incarnation, while the Democrats have become far more progressive.
Understanding this correctly strikes me as important both because it’s good to have true beliefs about the world but also because it poses certain political questions in a different light. Most notably, it seems to me that given how unhinged today’s Republicans are, it’s very important to beat them in elections — and a good way to do that would be to scale back on the asymmetrical movement leftward on policy.
There’s more to life than DW-NOMINATE
If you go back to the 110th Congress, DW-NOMINATE says that Ben Nelson was the most conservative Democratic senator, joined by Claire McCaskill, Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Jim Webb, Tom Carper, Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Joe Lieberman in the top 10.
That’s the kind of mix of “mostly corresponds with what people say plus one counterintuitive finding about Tom Carper” that you like to see from quantitative social science. It also turns out that if you ask progressive activists about Tom Carper, they have a lot of complaints. The most left-wing senators were Bernie Sanders, Barbara Boxer, Ted Kennedy, and Sherrod Brown.
But if you look at DW-NOMINATE scores for the 116th Congress, it says that on a scale where #1 is the most left-wing House member, Rashida Tlaib is #192. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is #208, Ilhan Omar is #184, and Ayanna Pressley is #175. It’s not that the algorithm doesn’t match our knowledge that these four members are a distinctive group of members of Congress — you can see on a graphical view that in a two-dimensional space, they cluster together in the middle of the Democratic caucus on the main ideological dimension but off as outliers on some hard-to-interpret second dimension.1
I believe I was a relatively early adopter among journalists in referring to DW-NOMINATE scores to assess politicians’ ideological position,2 and I’m not a hater of this work.
But the fact that it gives the “wrong” answer about the widely-noticed emergence of a new bloc of leftist lawmakers is a pretty good sign that we shouldn’t solely rely on DW-NOMINATE to support our claims about polarization. Or at a minimum, if you want to do that then I’d also like to hear you saying the Squad is a dynamic new group of moderate Democrats and Kamala Harris is more left-wing than Bernie Sanders.
I don’t mean to further belabor the point — I’ve just come to think this is a clear case of a situation where we need to let qualitative judgment supersede what the scaling algorithm is telling us, rather than blindly accept the conclusion that Harris is a leftist, AOC is moderate, and the GOP has continued moving right faster than the Democrats have moved left.
The Overton Window is shifting left
I would say that far and away the best description of the past 15 years or so in American politics is that the Overton Window has gone to the left.
That’s most famously true on LGBTQ issues, where Barack Obama’s 2008-vintage position on marriage equality is now almost unimaginably right-wing, and the current debates about accommodating trans athletes were just not on the agenda. Even though people didn’t pay a ton of attention to it at the time, Obama abandoned his longstanding support for cutting Social Security benefits as part of a comprehensive deficit-reduction deal in June of 2016, and instead, he adopted the position that the program should become more generous. Hillary Clinton had already adopted that position earlier in the primary, and Donald Trump ran and won with a Social Security platform (no changes) that was to the left of Obama’s old position but to the right of his new one.
There’s been a similar move on Medicare, where Obama used to argue with Paul Ryan about whether the program needed small cuts (the left view) or huge cuts and privatization (the right view). Now, the debate ranges from no changes to Medicare for All, with Trump again positioned to Obama’s left.
Of course, it’s obviously not the case that every issue looks like that.
On guns, the parties are becoming more polarized in a straightforward sense — the NRA-endorsed, pro-gun Democrats are a thing of the past, but there are also no more moderate, suburban GOP members who’d support an assault weapons ban. On immigration, the restrictionist views that had long dominated the bulk of the Republican congressional caucus came to dominate the White House under Trump. Trump also adopted the trade policy positions that traditionally had been associated with congressional Democrats (but not the Obama or Clinton administrations), which prompted speculation that Democrats might become a free-trade party. Instead, Trump’s trade policies were mostly supported by Democrats in Congress, and the Biden administration does not seem inclined to make a clean break with them.
By contrast, it’s hard to come up with an issue where the Democrats have moved right since the Bush years. I’d maybe say taxes, where Obama campaigned on raising taxes for families earning over $250,000 a year (i.e., about $300,000 in today’s dollars) while Biden sets the threshold higher at $400,000. On the other hand, in terms of share of GDP raised, the Biden tax plan would be the largest tax increase since 1968. The fact that it’s also structured to be super-progressive arguably makes it more left-wing rather than less. At a minimum, the context of Biden’s proposed tax increases is that they’re all designed to finance new social programs while Obama and Bill Clinton were proposing them as part of deficit reduction packages.
More to the point, when liberals freak out about the GOP these days, they’re mostly not talking about policy at all. It’s not like Trump invaded a medium-sized country on false pretenses, ran a global network of secret torture prisons, or was caught running a huge illegal surveillance program.
Republicans are a lot nuttier
As I covered in “Republicans’ Unhinged Moderation,” the flipside of all this is that today’s Republicans seem dangerous and authoritarian.
It’s not just that Trump did bad tweets or failed to comport himself with dignity. Over the weekend, Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for Texas in light of the freezing weather and the ensuing chaos in the state. Up until a few years ago, that would have been totally unremarkable. But Trump dragged his feet on delivering emergency aid to California during their wildfire emergencies, seemingly on the grounds that California is a safe blue state, so why should he care about them? It happens to be the case that Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ House leader, is also from California and was able to intervene.
Trump installed a series of political hacks to serve as Director of National Intelligence. He put his unqualified son-in-law in charge of important areas of national policy. He used his hotels and clubs to openly profit from the presidency. He doled out pardons to political allies outside the Office of the Pardon Attorney process. He refused to release duly appropriated aid money for Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government would help him with his re-election campaign. And after he lost the election, he and many other Republican Party leaders told people the election had been illegally stolen and encouraged a mob to gather, which eventually stormed the Capitol building.
The part of this that created a literal threat to the lives of congressional Republicans did provoke a fair amount of intra-party criticism, but ultimately the vast majority of his party opted for impunity. When Trump’s misconduct didn’t affect them personally, they mostly supported it.
Chris Hayes’ headline “The Republican Party is Radicalizing Against Democracy” is pretty dramatic, but I don’t think he’s wrong. And it’s not just Trump and the plot to steal the election. We saw in North Carolina in 2016 and then again in Wisconsin in 2018 that after losing statewide elections, Republicans responded by having lame-duck governors and heavily gerrymandered state legislatures change the rules to reassign power away from the winnable governors’ races and toward legislatures, where lines have been drawn so that Democrats need 55% of the vote to score a bare majority.
It seems to me that we are closer than is generally recognized to Republicans having one decent election where they get 50% of the vote and then entrenching permanent minority rule. But that, in some ways, only makes the Democrats’ leftward drift more puzzling.
Democrats should try harder to win
Biden won the 2020 primary rather easily as the most moderate candidate in the race. Nonetheless, he was very much a part of the overall leftward trajectory of the party.
On the nexus of fiscal policy and entitlement spending, I think he moved left for good reason — the real problem was Obama sticking with fiscal priorities that were more appropriate for the circumstances of the 1990s than for the 21st century era of low-interest rates. But on some other issues, I’m not sure. Throughout his career as a senator, Biden was always a supporter of the Hyde Amendment ban on federal funding of abortion services. Obama, a more modern Democrat who represented a blue state, was not. But as president, he ended up embracing the Hyde Amendment to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress.
Biden changed his Hyde Amendment view during the 2020 primary campaign — by most accounts in the face of a revolt from his own staff — thus adopting a position that is much less popular than his old one.
I think feminist groups are absolutely correct on this, and Medicaid and hypothetical future government health programs should fund abortion services. But whether Biden takes that position or not, it’s nowhere near happening legislatively. And it’s very unpopular. Also, the Republican Party is radicalizing against democracy, so I think Democrats should try really hard to win elections and put themselves in a position to redress the gerrymandering, ballot access issues, and Senate malapportionment that have left us on the brink of catastrophe. That means adopting popular positions rather than unpopular ones and broadening the tent rather than narrowing it.
Here’s a part of Democrats’ 2008 platform on immigration:
We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked. The American people are a welcoming and generous people, but those who enter our country's borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law. We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence. We need to dismantle human smuggling organizations, combating the crime associated with this trade. We also need to do more to promote economic development in migrant-sending nations, to reduce incentives to come to the United States illegally. And we need to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. It's a problem when we only enforce our laws against the immigrants themselves, with raids that are ineffective, tear apart families, and leave people detained without adequate access to counsel. We realize that employers need a method to verify whether their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States, and we will ensure that our system is accurate, fair to legal workers, safeguards people's privacy, and cannot be used to discriminate against workers.
Given the budget changes over the past 12 years, I seriously don’t think there’s a particularly strong case for increasing the CBP budget. But this paragraph is not really a policy statement at all. It's a statement that — sandwiched in the middle of a policy agenda that features a path to citizenship for the undocumented — tries to tell the people who worry about illegal immigration that Democrats are listening to them and hear their concerns.
Obama, in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” likewise took a strong position in favor of a path to citizenship and then took some time out to pander to people who disagree with him. He explained that “in the past, immigration occurred on America’s terms,” whereas:
Today it seems those terms no longer apply. Immigrants are entering as a result of a porous border rather than any systematic government policy; Mexico’s proximity, as well as the desperate poverty of so many of its people, suggests the possibility that border crossing cannot even be slowed, much less stopped. Satellites, calling cards, and wire transfers as well as the sheer size of the burgeoning Latino market, make it easier for today’s immigrant to maintain linguistic and cultural ties to the land of his or her birth (the Spanish-language Univision now boasts the highest-rated newscast in Chicago). Native-born Americans suspect that it is they, and not the immigrant, who are being forced to adapt. In this way, the immigration debate comes to signify not a loss of jobs but a loss of sovereignty, just one more example — like September 11, avian flu, computer viruses, and factories moving to China — that America seems unable to control its own destiny.
This is like 80% bullshit, but it worked! I think in his post-presidency, Obama has gotten a bit precious in his description of how he managed to win Iowa and Ohio twice and why those states have shifted right subsequently. It’s not just that he showed up and listened respectfully or that the media climate was different. He pandered to the actual views of the voters there — bending over backward to flatter his audience that their xenophobic fears were reasonable. Freaking out about Hispanic immigration? Never fear, says Obama, you’re nothing like the deranged bigots who freaked out when your grandparents came over from Poland.
Make polarization asymmetrical again
There is more to life than just pandering and trying to be popular.
Most of all, when it comes to addressing the intersecting short-term public health and economic crises, the most important thing is to do stuff that works. A speedy vaccine rollout and a speedy return to full employment are the best politics there is, regardless of how the specific elements poll.
Then beyond that, there is an urgent practical need to find ways to adopt anti-gerrymandering legislation, to admit new states, and to at least hedge against the possibility of a rogue Supreme Court undermining democratic governance.
But if you’re not directly addressing the urgent crises or advancing American democracy, then yeah, I really do kinda think you should only do popular stuff. There’s an old saying that “to defend everything is to defend nothing.” I often feel like today’s progressives want to say that every issue is the subject of transcendent moral urgency. And in some sense that’s true — these are all vitally important life or death issues. But if you treat every issue as transcendently important, then you’re really treating nothing as actually important.
By contrast, I think Republican Party anti-democratic radicalization is a real thing and super important. It’s important to beat them in a few elections in a row so their component interest groups get sad and try to force some more discipline on elected officials to make the party more electable. And it’s important to level the playing field so that Republicans need 50%+1 to win, not 47%. Everything else kind of takes a back seat.
That’s not to say you can’t do anything. There’s tons of useful clean energy stuff that’s popular. There are ways to make health care cheaper that are popular. DREAMer stuff is popular. Raising the minimum wage is popular. Trimming your sails and avoiding unpopular stuff isn’t about giving up on making progress, it’s about focusing your efforts on actually making progress where it’s politically possible. It’s about trying to make sure that the polarization really is asymmetrical and that the other guys are left holding the bag of unpopular positions. Liberals find Trump so abhorrent that they generally refuse to recognize that the Trump-era GOP decisively pivoted to the center to ameliorate huge electoral vulnerabilities on several key issues.
Democrats probably don’t need to do anything as drastic as abandoning long-held conservative orthodoxy on Social Security, Medicare, trade, and marriage equality. They probably don’t even need to pander to immigrant-hating racists as much as Obama did. But you can pander a little! Kamala Harris could make fun of the San Francisco School Board. Catherine Cortez Masto could say that children and grandchildren of immigrants don’t believe America is as rotten and racist as leftists say. Joe Biden could do an event with police chiefs and talk about the state and local funding in his COVID-19 relief bill.
There’s a period in American history where vote counts have a clear two-dimensional quality that also has a clear ideological interpretation — there’s a left-wing conflict over economic policy that’s somewhat separate from the conflict over race and civil rights issues.
Traditionally journalists would look at scorecards given by groups like the American Conservative Union (right) and Americans for Democratic Action (left) but since these are based on scoring just a handful of votes, DW-Nominate lets you make more fine-grained measurements.