American politics has been getting more contentious lately.
For a long time I was skeptical of that sentiment. After all, it sounds like a lot of things that everyone believes even though they aren’t true—”crime’s getting worse!” “children these days are so rude!” “thousands of channels, but nothing to watch!” “everything’s falling apart!”
Of course, sometimes crime is getting worse. Sometimes the British Empire is on the verge of collapse. And sometimes, politics is becoming more contentious. And once you have the data, you no longer need to rely on highly subjective intuitions.
Behold: the data!
Fig. 1: Ideological alignment of the Republicans (blue) and Democrats (autumn colors) over the past 138 years. “Up” is more conservative. Source.
The graph above charts the mean DW-NOMINATE score of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House since 1879. DW-NOMINATE is a method for ranking legislators based on their votes, and comparing them across different sessions of the legislature. Here, it’s been used to estimate a liberal-to-conservative score for every representative (along the economic policy dimension), and then had those scores averaged together by party to produce caucus means.
This graph lets us tell a simple, accurate, and powerful story about the past eighty years, the “postwar period” (although really, it looks more like a post-New Deal period to me).
- For the entire length of the postwar period, the Democrats have drifted slowly and inconsistently toward the left.
- From 1935 to 1977 the Republicans moved toward the left, even more slowly and more steadily.
- From 1979 onward, the Republicans have gone haring off to the right.
These observations divide the postwar period into two parts. Let’s call them the Eisenhower Era and the Reagan Era. The Eisenhower Era (1934-1978) was a period of moderate and leftward-drifting consensus between the parties; the Reagan Era (1979 to now) is a period of growing antagonism, fueled by a sharp ideologically rightward movement among Republicans.(Data is from the House, but trends are similar, though far noisier, in the Senate.)
Now, I was born in the Reagan Era, and I’ve lived my whole life in it. And this is increasingly common! As of the 2010 census, only 32% of Americans were old enough to have ever voted in the Eisenhower Era; by now, that percentage will have fallen sharply. And so it’s not surprising that people my age—and indeed, those ten, twenty, thirty years older than me—treat this trend like an iron law of politics. The Republicans always get more conservative!
But this is not a law. It’s a particular trend, belonging to a particular historical period. And it’s a really weird trend.
Let’s talk about exactly how weird it is.
- The Republican House caucus has grown more conservative every election for 18 elections. That’s twice as long as the next longest streak either major party has ever accomplished in any direction.
- Moreover, the Republicans have grown more conservative across a stunning range of other conditions. They grew more conservative when:
- They took control of the House (1994, 2010)
- They lost control of the House (2006)
- They gained seats (1980, 1984, etc. etc.)
- They lost seats (1982, 1986, 1988, etc. etc.)
- Communism grew more threatening (1980 election following the invasion of Afghanistan)
- Communism collapsed (1992 election following the fall of the Berlin Wall)
- Republicans held the presidency (Reagan, Bush, Bush II)
- Democrats held the presidency (Clinton, Obama)
- The economy grew before the election (the mid 80s, mid 90s, mid 00s)
- The economy tanked before the election (1992, 2008)
- The percentage of the overall population afraid of “big government” spiked (1996)
- The percentage afraid of “big government” plummeted (2002)
- Moreover, they grew more conservative just about as fast as anyone has ever grown anything, for at least twice as long. Over the course of this March to the Conservative sea, the Republicans moved on average rightward by 0.028 points. That doesn’t sound like much, but the average swing across all elections and both parties was 0.016 points; and remember that streaks, in general, usually last for 2 to 4 elections, rather than eighteen of them. (The only streaks with similar partisan momentum to the current one were the Democrats’ rightward turns in the 20s-30s (somewhat concealed by the remarkable growth of the party in the latter half of that interval), and the Democrats’ remarkable rightward leap in the elections of 1894 – 1898—both moderating drives.) (Data and analysis available upon request.)
TL;DR: The Republican’s rightward move over the past 36 years has been unprecedentedly strong, it’s lasted unprecedentedly long, and it has been apparently unaffected by changing political circumstances.
Or, as I’ve put it in the headline, the Republicans have invented a partisan perpetual motion machine: some mechanism that consistently sends ever-more-conservative Republicans to Congress.
And I have no idea what the fuck it is.
The thing is, most popular hypotheses for why the Republicans have grown more conservative—Ronald Reagan, talk radio, Newt Gingrich, Fox News, the Tea Party, Breitbart, REDMAP, etc.—do not explain the data. The Republicans began their rightward turn in the election of 1978; even Ronald Reagan seems like an early product of this trend, rather than a cause. And whatever the cause is, the effect has been remarkably consistent across several decades. This suggests that daisy-chained mechanisms like “Gingrich in the early 90s, Fox in the late 90s, Evangelicals in the mid-aughts, Drudge in the late-aughts, etc.” are poor explanations.
Moreover, as best as I’m aware, this phenomenon is uniquely American. Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan were understood to be of a piece, but as far as I know, the Tories didn’t move dramatically and consistently to the right throughout the Blair years.
I want to say again: this is really weird. I know I’m repeating myself, but I think we miss this point in public discourse. Mann and Ornstein’s 2012 article accused the Republican party of being “an insurgent outlier“, and they and other scholars have pushed the “asymmetric polarization” narrative pretty hard. But in general, these articles don’t pause to take scope of how genuinely bizarre this trend is.
(Mann and Ornstein credit it all to Newt Gingrich (and Grover Norquist), which, well, let’s just say I’m skeptical that America’s foremost co-author of mediocre alternate-history Civil War novels shaped the entire trajectory of a political party from his freshman year in Congress until fourteen years after he resigned.)
Not only is this really weird, it’s actively dangerous. The parties are, at present, further apart ideologically than at any time on record. Some of this is the result of “ideological sorting”—the replacement of liberal Northern Republicans with Democrats, and conservative southern Democrats with Republicans. But much of it is the result of the Republican perpetual motion machine. This has a range of predicable bad effects. As is often the case, these bad effects are present in both parties, but much more severe among the Republicans.
- Legislators are more willing to pursue high-stakes, high-damage strategies like government shutdowns.
- Legislators are less willing to compromise, weakening the overall functioning of our compromise-requiring legislature. (See the collapsing rates of legislative action, as well as the standstill regarding the Supreme Court.)
- Greater ideological gaps put the stability of key government programs—e.g. Obamacare, but also Social Security—at risk every time the Republicans regain control of the government. Even if these risks do not materialize, a huge part of the value of these programs flows precisely from their presumed reliability. High variance governance destroys this value, even if the programs themselves are not ultimately eliminated.
Or, to summarize: Republican radicalization harms the government, weakens the legislature, and undermines trust in social services. And it’s been doing so since 1979.
So: the Republicans have invented a partisan perpetual motion machine that’s been destroying America for longer than I’ve been alive. And we don’t know what to do about it.
There are, broadly, two strategies I’ve seen on the left about the appropriate response to this state of affairs.
- The Victory Strategy holds that Democrats simply need to win elections. When the Democrats win, this punishes Republicans for their radicalization, and encourages them to move in a more centrist direction.
- The Leftism Strategy holds that the Republican Perpetual Motion Machine should be emulated, if possible. The Democrats should reformulate themselves as an ideologically Leftist party, to serve as a counterweight to the ideologically Rightist Republicans.
The problem with the Victory Strategy is that its core mechanism doesn’t seem to be true. Republicans suffered a range of electoral defeats throughout the Reagan Era, most dramatically in 2008; it doesn’t seem to have affected their trajectory. While it’s possible that some more dramatic set of Democratic victories would change enough Republican minds to bend the trajectory, there’s no real evidence in favor of this supposition, and at least some against it. And, needless to say, Democratic victories of arbitrary size and duration are not simply available to order.
The problem with the Leftism Strategy is that it doesn’t actually address the problems outlined in section VI. If the Democrats were able to move to the left as dramatically as Republicans have to the right, the secular problems of shutdowns, gridlock, and risk would only expand. It’s true that hard-line, hard-nosed Democrats might be able to negotiate better outcomes in some cases, but unless the Democrats could move to the left and dominate elections on an ongoing basis, actual policy gains would be intermittent at best.
The problems with each of these strategies is that, say it with me, nobody understands how the Republican perpetual motion machine works. The Victory Strategists are convinced that losing will gum up the process, but they don’t have a plausible description of what the process is. The Leftism Strategists want to copy a machine they don’t understand.
So in the end, this isn’t an essay with a plan. This is an essay that pleads for understanding. Republicans, how have you done this? And for God’s sake, how can we get you to stop?
When I first conceived of this article, I figured it would end with the section above. But the funny thing about the data is, it has a way of surprising you.
So I’ll conclude with a few countervailing observations, hopefully delivering on those optimistic notions the title promises.
First: The Republican House caucus in 2015 was less conservative than its predecessor. Not a lot less conservative. But measurably less. That’s the first time this has happened in thirty eight years.
Second: A few days ago, Speaker Ryan withdrew the AHCA. Now, a lot of coverage has focused on the Freedom Caucus, the hard-right Republican sub-caucus which opposed the AHCA for reasons of, not to get partisan, insufficient cruelty. But I was looking at the following graph, and it tells a rather different story.
Fig. 2: Ideological alignment of the 90th and 10th percentiles of the Republican and Democratic parties.
This graph asks the question: how conservative are the most and least conservative Republicans? And it shows that the least conservative republicans have been growing slightly less conservative since, weirdly enough, the 2010 elections. This is not a story I’ve heard anything about. But the data, as they say, don’t lie. The 10% of least conservative Republicans in Congress in 2015 were less conservative than the corresponding population in 2009.
10% of the Republican caucus is 24 votes, the magic number of defections required to defeat legislation.
I don’t claim any special insight into the AHCA failure. But what I know is this: the Freedom Caucus went to the White House. They got concessions. But the bill failed anyway.
I don’t mean to sugarcoat this. The 10th percentile-Republicans—i.e., the House’s ideological median—seem to fall at a DW-NOMINATE score of about 0.4. Call it House Republicans before the Contract With America. As a liberal, this is depressing fact. But it is not as depressing as it might be.
In (cautiously optimistic) conclusion: it’s impossible to tell what the future holds. Perhaps the dangerous trends we discussed above will continue. But there is something new afoot in the nation. For the first time in my life, House Republicans have grown less conservative, especially within their moderate caucus.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we still have only the faintest sense of the true nature of our obstacles. But we can win. And we will.