The Politics of Extremism

The mainstream political media – from top-rated television programs like Meet the Press to David Brooks and Thomas Friedman in the New York Times – tells America a story of perpetual partisan bickering. Democrats and Republicans are retreating to their extremes rather than trying to come together. Both sides are moving away from the middle. Both sides refuse to propose solutions. It’s both sides.

That’s not true. The story of the American political parties in the last three decades has been of what is called, in political science jargon, “asymmetric polarization.” Democrats have remained a center-left party, while Republicans have drifted to the extreme right.

Respected centrist and center-right analysts Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a book last year making this point. They called the Republican Party an “insurgent outlier” and slammed the “failure of the media” to report that it had become “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Liberal bloggers have been saying that for years, but many observers were shocked to see it stated so plainly by establishment figures. Unfortunately, they are right. Republicans are the biggest problem in American politics today – not because they oppose liberal policies, but because their tactics make such basic tasks of government as passing budgets and raising the debt ceiling to prevent a national default all but impossible.

A brief examination of the parties should prove Mann and Ornstein’s point. The Democratic Party embraces both Blue Dogs and progressives alike. This is partially out of electoral necessity: it enables them to win elections even in places that lean Republican in most circumstances. In presidential elections, they can rely on a young, diverse, urban coalition. In other races, they nominate candidates who fit their districts, though they may be more conservative than the left’s ideal candidate. Therefore, legislation they pass is left-of-center but moderate. They are willing to compromise in the name of good governance.

The relationship between progressives and Blue Dogs is not always harmonious. The left gripes a lot about conservative Democrats blocking important legislative priorities. I was no fan of then-Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) pushing health reform to the right in 2009. However, most liberals have learned to tolerate more conservative Democrats, if only to keep Republicans out of power. What’s more, even the Blue Dogs generally vote for most important Democratic reforms that most liberals support. Those reforms are often weaker than they could be, but even incremental progress is progress. Liberal Democratic voters tend to recognize that: polls from Pew Research Center during the debt ceiling confrontation indicated that the overwhelming majority of them favor compromise over sticking to principle. The Democrats’ large, loosely-ideological caucus has enhanced their strength in the Senate and enabled them to pass a lot of important legislation. It is also the best hope for success in the 2014 election.

Republicans used to have a big-tent party as well. It was still largely center-right. It resisted the New Deal and the welfare state. It disliked the left. Yet Nelson Rockefeller, Dwight Eisenhower, George Romney, and other moderate Republicans were a strong, even dominant, force within the party for many years. It was possible to be both liberal and Republican for much of the party’s history.

Today, Republicans have become strict and ideological. Their DW-NOMINATE scores – used by political scientists to measure ideological trends in Congress – reflect a party that has moved to the right without interruption since the late 1970s. The conservative movement has effectively taken them over. Among the consequences are a willingness to use the debt ceiling – and thus the full faith and credit of the United States government – as a hostage in budget negotiations and a dramatic spike in use of the filibuster to block legislation.

Another result is the Republican embrace of a raft of conspiracy theories that are total gibberish to anybody outside the conservative movement’s media bubble. During his presidential campaign, for example, Mitt Romney touted conspiracy theories about Benghazi, Solyndra, and the fictional closure of Jeep plants. Senator John McCain has played into paranoia about ACORN and voter fraud. Senator Chuck Grassley, once thought to be a health care moderate, elevated fictional Obamacare death panels from the obscurity of Sarah Palin’s Facebook page into the issue debate.

In short, Republicans have brought extremism into the mainstream. Nothing is too conservative for the Republican base. Indeed, nothing is conservative enough: the same Pew polls indicating Democratic openness to compromise showed that almost half of Republicans preferred their leaders to “stand by their principles” rather than compromise.

Karl Rove and other establishment Republicans are scrambling to change this dynamic. They want to stop the base from choosing un-electable ultra-conservative candidates in key congressional races in the future, as they have in Nevada, Delaware, Indiana, and Missouri in the past four years. This effort has encountered fierce hostility on the right. Conservatives like Mark Levin, Tony Perkins, and Phyllis Schlafly sent an open letter to Rove charging him with waging “a war with conservatives and the Tea Party.”

If repeated electoral defeats and establishment moderation efforts have not forced Republicans to the middle, it is not clear what will. An important first step would be for the media to stop pretending that both sides are to blame for what Mann and Ornstein call “the politics of extremism.” Republicans cannot be allowed to keep getting away with zealotry, unthinking obstruction, and conspiracy theory just because the media is committed to false neutrality. Another possibility is that at least a handful of Republicans may choose to work with Democrats in an unofficial coalition in the House, as occurred during the fiscal cliff and the Violence Against Women Act debates, in order to achieve some of their goals. Whatever it is, something must change their calculations. The American people deserve better than this.

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