Partisan Polarization on Economic Issues

Joshua HuderJoshua Huder over at Rule 22 wrote an interesting, but I think ultimately misleading article, Left or Right? Who’s Further From the Middle? It has to do with this recent dust up over Peter Wehner’s ridiculous claim that the Republicans haven’t gotten any more conservative while Democrats have become way more liberal. Some people have used the standard Voteview graph that shows both parties getting further away from the center, but the Republicans doing so in a much bigger way. Huder pointed out that this only represents roll call votes, and so is a skewed sample. I’ll come back to that issue in a moment.

The obvious response to this idea is that the roll call votes still tell us a lot. And Huder doesn’t disagree with that. His whole article, however, is basically an apologia for the Republicans. He certainly wouldn’t agree with that characterization. But all he’s really doing is making a political science argument that there are incentives for Congressional Republicans to push for roll call votes that allow them to show how conservative they are to their base. Fair enough. But the issue is not how conservative Congressional Republicans are in their heart of hearts. The issue is how conservative the party itself is.

All Huder adds to the discussion is that Republican politicians have reasons for what they do. This is obvious. I think we’ve been arguing this for a long time. The narrative goes something like the following. Congressional Republicans come largely from very safe districts and states. Thus, any candidate who wins the nomination will win the general election. Thus, Republican condidates compete with each other to see who can be the most conservative — the most pure. This situation is made all the worse with conservative groups like the NRA that “score” votes. But claiming that Congressional Republicans are rational to appeal to their crazy base misses the point.

Here is the Voteview graph that I mentioned above. There are a couple of things worth mentioning about it. The first is that it doesn’t show any real movement at all for northern Democrats. So the entire “liberal trend” is based upon southern Democrats. And as we know, there aren’t that many southern Democrats. Those that used to be southern Democrats are now Republicans who are as crazy or crazier than any of the other Republicans. So the Democrats, even by this accounting, are no more liberal than they were in 1960:

House Polarization - Voteview

But I think this graph is distorted in a way that no one talks about. I’m interested in what has happened to the Democrats regarding economic issues. Voteview did provide a graph on social issues. And in that one, we’ve seen that the House Democrats have gotten much more liberal. I suspect that on the issue of foreign policy, Democrats are roughly as liberal now as they have been. This implies that on economic issues, Democrats have become more conservative. This is certainly what I’ve noticed based on observations over the years.

The point is that becoming more liberal regarding LGBT rights is great, but it isn’t compensation for allowing the minimum wage to atrophy. Or for pushing more job killing “trade” deals like the TPP. Or abandoning the labor union movement. These are the issues that most matter not just to me but to the American people. And largely the Democratic Party has managed to maintain its status as the liberal party based upon social issues. This is a major problem. We shouldn’t allow the party to do that because it really hurts the country in terms of economic debate.

So I think the discussion should be what has happened to the parties regarding economic issues. And in that regard, the Democrats have gotten more conservative. And the Republicans have gotten absurdly more conservative. So the Democratic shift with regard to these issues has actually made the extreme shift of the Republicans seem more reasonable than it actually is. People arguing that the Democrats have become more liberal should either stick to discussing social issues or be laughed out of polite society.

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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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