Presidential Ideology

On the IssuesEarlier this week, I discovered a great website, On the Issues. It provides quite detailed information about the positions of politians at various times in their careers. I’ve found it really useful. One thing that isn’t so useful—But very interesting!—is their use of the political philosophy chart. These charts place a person’s ideology on two scales: economic and social. Thus, if you are economically conservative and socially liberal, you are a libertarian. (In my experience, libertarians are not this, but that’s another matter; it is what they claim to be.) If you are economically liberal and socially conservative, then you are a populist. You get the idea.

The reason such charts aren’t that useful for politicians is because it is highly subjective how you would rate different votes. In particular, I think the scale as used by On the Issues makes the range of disagreement on economic issues look much wider than it is. Nonetheless, it provides a decent idea of where politicians are. The website provides ratings for all the presidents since Kennedy. So I went ahead and plotted all of the presidents on one graph, with the Republicans in red and the Democrats in blue:

Presidents' Ideology

What immediately stands out is that the Democratic presidents have been much more moderate than the Republicans. The only president who doesn’t qualify as moderate is Obama, and this I find hard to believe. I accept his 80% on social issues, but if he is a 20% of economic issues, it is only because of the extremism of the Republican Party. You may wonder who that most moderate of presidents is—there just on tic from the very center of the graph. That is none other than Richard Nixon! And that is more or less correct.

What you see with the Republicans is a steady march toward extremism. But surprisingly, the most extreme Republican president wasn’t Reagan or Bush Jr. It was Bush Sr. That shows how the ranking are not that accurate. I don’t think that anyone thinks that Bush’s father was more extreme on social issues than his son. But the chart is clearly correct in that the two Bushes and Reagan were roughly equivalent in their ideologies.

Similarly, on the Democratic side, the numbers don’t seem quite right. The first three Democratic presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter—are all ranked at 40% on economic issues. Carter was distinctly more conservative than his predecessors. And the idea that Clinton is even more liberal is just ridiculous. Again, I think these ranking are just relative. Since both Clinton and Obama received nonstop opposition from the Republicans, they are ranked as more liberal than they should be.

What is most interesting in all this is how there have been no populist presidents. I understand there being no libertarian presidents; libertarianism is an extremely unpopular ideology. But the vast majority of the Republican base is actually populist, not “right conservative.” These people are mostly Republicans for social reasons. Yet the party does not offer them a populist choice. The reason for this is that the Republican elites really are libertarian. But since no one likes libertarians, they have a choice: they could compromise on economic issues and become Democrats or compromise on social issues and become Republicans. Their answer should be obvious: they care about money far more than they care about freedom.

But if the political philosophy chart was really accurate, the Democrats would be clustered around 60% on economic issues and the Republicans would be clustered around 90%. Bearing that in mind, the chart is very interesting. And if you want to drill down into policy, On the Issues provides a great deal of useful information.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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