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. The most widely used measure of political polarization, a score of ideology based on voting developed by Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthal, has shown that the Republicans in the Senate and especially the House have drifted away from the center far more rapidly than Democrats.
Right around 1975, the Republican party sharply turned away from the center line and hasn’t looked back. The Democrats have been drifting away from the center too, but nowhere near as quickly.
Every once in awhile an op-ed writer will come along and make a qualitative argument along the lines of “no, really, it’s the Democrats who are polarizing!” Peter Wehner, a former official in three previous Republican presidential administrations, did just that in the pages of The New York Times last week. His argument amounts to the notion that since President Barack Obama has pursued some policies that are more liberal than Bill Clinton’s, “the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right.”
Well, no. Here’s another way of looking at it: How many moderates are in each party? The Poole-Rosenthal data show the number of House members in each party who are not centrists — that is, whose ideological scores put them on the more extreme ends of the partisan scale.
In the most recent Congress nearly 90 percent of Republican House members are not politically moderate. By contrast, 90 percent of Democratic members are moderates. It’s quite difficult to square data like this with a claim that Democrats are abandoning the center faster than Republicans. As the data shows, there are plenty of centrist Democrats left in the House — but hardly any centrist Republicans.
It’s worth pointing out that none of this is happening in a vacuum — House Republicans are become more extreme because Republican voters are electing more extreme candidates. We see many of these same patterns playing out among the electorate as well, as a massive Pew Research Study demonstrated last year.
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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