Who You Calling Extreme? [With Comments By John]

My old pal and occasional sparring partner Norm Ornstein and his trusty sidekick Tom Mann have been arguing for years now that our current political gridlock owes to the asymmetric extremism of Republicans.  And they have a chart to prove it!

Mannstein Chart 2 copy

This chart, based on an analysis of roll call votes in the House, supposedly shows that Republicans have become more conservative while liberals have only nudged a wee little bit.  QED.  Now, are roll call votes the best way of determining the ideological quotient of the two parties?  I expect I could easily construct a metric that would report the opposite results, because social science is wonderful.  (Start with things many Democrats once opposed—like unlimited abortion on demand or gay marriage—that are now articles of absolute faith.)  Or I could accept the Mannstein hypothesis in toto, and say, “it’s about time the GOP began taking an extreme stand about what’s happening in our government.”  Extremism in defense of liberty, baby!*

Or I can direct your attention to Doug Sosnik’s excellent feature that appeared in Politico magazine over the weekend, “Blue Crush: How the Left Took Over the Democratic Party.”  Sosnik was the political director of the Clinton White House, so this is no Tea Party agent provocateur sent from our side.  And he has charts of his own!  Drawn mostly from Pew surveys, they show the Democratic Party sliding sharply to the left.  Like this:

Sosnik 1 copy

Sosnik 2 copy

These charts make clear that the center of gravity in the Democratic Party has moved away from the relative moderation of the Clinton years.  Have the Republicans essentially changed from their views under Gingrich in the 1990s?  I doubt it.  The main difference is the rise of the Tea Party; partly because of the failures of the Gingrich-Bush II era, conservatives have taken to the streets, and this upsets liberals because only the left is supposed to get parade permits.

Sosnik thinks Democrats have many strengths at the moment, but ends his piece with this observation:

But the left nonetheless faces an important existential question in the years ahead: Yes, the Republican Party’s inability to adapt to America’s cultural shifts and demographic changes is creating an enormous opportunity for Democrats. However, in an age of political alienation where the majority of Americans lack faith in their institutions in general—and their federal government in particular—Democratic activists will need to reconcile the public’s desire for smaller government with their own progressive impulses.

That sounds like he actually thinks there’s trouble ahead for Dems.  I suspect he’s right.

* Or, as I put to Ornstein in one of our public debates a couple years ago:

So, to the question, “is the Republican party extreme”, I can only answer: I certainly hope so.  Let us recall that the Republican Party began its life as an “extremist” party, dedicated to the purpose of abolishing the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.  Barely within a year of its birth, the Supreme Court declared the Republican Party platform to be unconstitutional.  The Republican Party Mannstein wishes we had would have said, “Oh well, I guess we should accommodate ourselves to the status quo.”

Likewise today there is little reason or purpose for the Republican Party unless it acts with a new determination to call a decisive halt to the endless ratcheting expansion of centralized government power and reckless spending.

JOHN adds: I don’t think it is any surprise that in recent years, the Democratic Party has gotten more liberal, while the Republican Party has become more conservative. It is easy to forget that not too many years ago, “Republican” didn’t mean conservative, and “Democrat” didn’t mean liberal. Some of the most conservative people in Congress were Southern Democrats, while among the more liberal were a number of northern Republicans. What has happened is that the parties have finally broken free of Civil War-era alignments and have sorted themselves in a more nationally consistent manner. This change has had consequences, and one can argue that it has contributed to political polarization.

But it tells us little or nothing about whether conservative Republicans have gotten more conservative, or liberal Democrats have gotten more liberal. To analyze that, you would have to look at substantive policy positions that are now regarded as normal in each party, compared with 20 or 30 years ago. On that basis, it seems to me that today’s conservatives believe pretty much the same things as conservatives 30 years ago did–strong national defense, restraints on government spending and power, the rule of law under the Constitution, and so on. Maybe there are differences in degree on some issues, but they aren’t obvious to me. On the other hand, it seems clear that the left has drifted farther to the left. Positions that are common today–an open disavowal of concern about the national debt or the need for federal budgets, gay marriage, advocacy of American weakness abroad as a positive virtue, executive power to disregard federal statutes–would have been considered radical 30 years ago, to the extent they even existed.

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