Asymmetric Polarization? No. Try, Democrat Extremism

There is a comforting story that liberals like to tell themselves in order to reinforce their own perceptions of moral superiority.

They pretend as if they are a force of reason and sensibility in otherwise insane political times, the anchor that is barely keeping Washington grounded to the concerns of average Americans. And worse, they dress it up in political pseudo-science. Christopher Ingraham, writing for the Washington Post, serves up one particularly odious example:

Political scientists have known for years that political polarization is largely a one-sided phenomenon: in recent decades the Republican Party has moved to the right much faster than Democrats have moved to the left. As Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution has described it, “Republicans have become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition.”

The data backing this claim up are pretty solid.

If the 2016 election results proved anything, it’s that what political scientists “know” could fill a thimble, and “data,” especially that described as “pretty solid,” is often just partisan biases wrapped up in a shinier wrapper. As Damon Linker explains it in The Week:

Democrats are pragmatists, if they do say so themselves, deeply rooted in the reality-based community, beholden to facts, toiling valiantly and soberly to make the country a better, fairer place. Republicans, meanwhile, are ideologues monomaniacally fixated on cutting government spending and taxes for the wealthy, regardless of the consequences, and moving inexorably further and further to the extreme right.

However, if a recent Pew poll is to be believed, this story is nothing but a self-justifying myth. Yes, many Republicans are ideological, and the party has indeed been moving to the right in recent years. But the truth is that Democrats have simultaneously been moving to the left — and doing so with greater unity and, on some issues, more rapidly than Republicans have been moving right.

The Pew survey does confirm what we’ve all known to be true: The gap between the political values of the two parties is larger than it has been in the recent past. But the reason for the gap isn’t necessarily that Republicans are lining up behind the Tea Party banner and marching to the far right end of the political spectrum. Quite the contrary, it’s Democrats retreating to their own corner and then wagging the finger of partisanship in Republican’s direction.

“In a few issue areas, notably views of homosexuality and of immigrants, public opinion in both parties has clearly shifted in a more liberal direction over the past several decades,” Pew researchers write in their report. “Nevertheless, the partisan gaps on both of these values have gotten wider over the past two decades, as the long-term shifts are more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans.”

On other issue areas, such as whether “corporations make too much profit,” whether government “should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt,” and whether “it is possible to get ahead through hard work,” Republican positions have either remained the same, or shifted marginally to the right, while Democrats have shifted markedly, and in some cases dramatically, leftward.

The dramatic differences in party polarization become all-the-more evidence when you examine where the median voter of each party was in 1994, and where it was today. As the Pew-developed chart shows, the Republican center has shifted marginally rightward, but the median Democrat has shifted far to the left.

In some ways this is unexpected. After all, President Donald Trump’s election signaled a significant broadening of the conservative coalition. The party is no longer purely defined by Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool of conservatism (fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and defense conservatives), but is also inclusive of populists, which carries economic and cultural dimensions. Democrats, on the other hand, under the leadership of figureheads like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have become increasingly ideologically pure, pushing out moderating forces and the voters that went along with them.

While Democrats’ progressive message may resonate louder in their coastal enclaves, the reverberations never make it out of their partisan echo chambers. Instead of attracting more voters, they’re instead content to rest on the flawed belief that they aren’t to blame for America’s increasing polarization.