It’s widely believed on the American left that the Democrats have moved right and that the difference between the parties has nearly vanished. That’s a tempting POV, for sure. But it’s hard to reconcile with Congressional voting habits. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, both parties had liberal and conservative wings. Starting in the 1980s, they began to diverge, and now by one measure, they’ve never been so polarized. This is via ABC’s The Note:

In the long march toward a more parliamentary and partisan Washington, National Journal‘s 2010 congressional vote ratings mark a new peak of polarization,” National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein writes. “For only the second time since 1982, when NJ began calculating the ratings in their current form, every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican—and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat. Even Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, the most conservative Democrat in the rankings, produced an overall voting record slightly to the left of the most moderate Republicans last year: Ohio’s George Voinovich and Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The Senate had been that divided only once before, in 1999. But the overall level of congressional polarization last year was the highest the index has recorded, because the House was much more divided in 2010 than it was in 1999. Back then, more than half of the chamber’s members compiled voting records between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 2010, however, the overlap between the parties in the House was less than in any previous index.” NationalJournal.com’s full Vote Ratings.

What to make of this? What to make of the fact that Dem leader Harry Reid’s voting record ties him with the nominal socialist Bernie Sanders to put them both among the most liberal members of the Senate? Politics certainly doesn’t feel polarized—there looks to be a suffocating consensus in favor of the status quo. Is it that one party is insanely right wing and the other is just tepidly so? Is that what polarization looks like?

17 Comments on “Polarization

  1. Doug, I think what has happened is more of an internal polarization within the broad political concensus.

    The only difference is that there is no longer the pull of conservative Democrats to maintain the diversity of opinion within the Democratic Party, just as the “liberal”/”moderate” Republicans have all but disappeared.

    In addition, since the doominant Democrats have mostly moved rightward economically but retained some sembulance of social opposition to the Republican/Religious Right/Tea Party social conservatism, it does seem a lot more polarized now.

    From the standpoint of the broader economic and plutocratic goals, though, the general consensus still remains, and it is trending slowly but steadily rightward, as Democrats continue to embrace Third Way corporatism and Republicans immerse themselves further in the Tea Party.


  2. It could well be the case that the parties are polarized on a spectrum that has narrowed and moved right when it comes to issues of economics, class, and social welfare. The parties may have been extremely polarized on Obamacare, for example, but Obamacare was well to the right of the kind of national health insurance Nixon proposed in 1974. This is a variant of the “mobilization of bias” argument made by Bachrach and Baratz way back in 1960 – power isn’t measured just by prevailing on an issue, but by determining what counts as an issue.

  3. I think it’s the difference between polarization and scope — the polarization has increased while the scope of discussion has shrunk. And furthermore, the contraction has been entirely on one side. The liberal wing of both parties used to talk about full employment and free health care and while the conservative wings talked about paranoid communist conspiracies and going back to the 19th century. Those options are now way beyond the pale on the left, while the right is still talking the same thing: paranoid conspiracies and going back to the 19C. Against this background, the polarization of the parties is kind of besides the point, a wonky administrative detail. The discourse has completely lost its left agenda.

  4. I hope you are reaping decent ducats from the google ads. The ad appearing under your post as I read it is for a film called “Ronald Reagan: An American Journey,” with the breathless tag line, “The most admired man in American politics.”

    If you’re getting a mere trickle of income from the ads, you might want to eliminate them. The cognitive dissonance undercuts your overall perspective.

    (Though in this case, the ad does validate your post, if obliquely: “one party is insanely right wing and the other is just tepidly so.” To the degree both of them do lionize Reagan — one party does so fanatically, and the other more tepidly — it proves your point.)

  5. Voting records are useful as a measure only when similar bills are coming up for a vote. In recent years, the most “liberal” measures that actually came to a vote might have been moderate compromises in the 1970’s. Any analysis that equates the political views of Bernie Sanders and Harry Reid is fatally flawed. If Harry Reid had permitted Sander’s legislative proposals to come to a vote, there might have been a bit more data on which to base the conclusions.

  6. The so-called polarization has come over a shrinking range of issues. We’re not talking about real disagreement on the broader points of the neo-liberal agenda, but rather fine sticking points about running the empire. Harry Reid isn’t disagreeing with anyone over the need for socializing the means of production, instituting a national living wage, nationalizing the big banks, etc. It’s over how much we should cut and from where.

    So in that respect he seems wildly left-wing compared to the very right, but not in the broad spectrum of possible policies. It’s like comparing Pizza Hut and frozen pizza; one of them sucks a bit less, but in the end they’re both crap compared to the real thing.

  7. What Michael said.
    Or to put in in another way: if both parties are moving inexorably rightwards, but R’s move much faster than D’s, this is exactly the result you’d expect – ‘polarisation’, yes, but to the right of what used to be the center.
    For someone who has not changed their position on the left, both parties now may seem so far away to the right that yes, differences between them are hardly noticeable from that distance.

  8. In addition to the basic point others have raised here — the overall political spectrum has both narrowed and shifted right — the other element that has to be considered is the realignment of the parties on the issue of race. A fair amount of the polarization, I would think, has to do with the fact that all those racist Southern Democrats finally left the party, making for a much higher degree of ideological homogeneity within the parties on basic issues of race, which often track other issues as well.

  9. Two things, Corey. First, what’s the evidence that the political spectrum has narrowed since the 1950s? Eisenhower made no effort to bust unions or repeal the New Deal. And second, as I recall, Jeffrey Stonecash found little difference in the parties in Congressional districts even outside the South. Today’s voting is much more divided by income, with low-income districts voting D and high-income districts voting R, than it was 40 or 50 years ago.

  10. The issue of polarization is really confusing because there are different types of polarization going on at the same time that partially work at cross purposes. You’re totally right that individual voting in the U.S. today tends to break down along class lines (with the poor voting D and the rich voting R). But the trend is more or less pronounced depending on which states you’re looking at – this trend is much more pronounced in poor states than it is in rich states. Andrew Gelman et al in the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State find that rich people in poor states (i.e. Mississippi) vote based on their class position, while rich people in rich states (i.e. Connecticut) tend to deviate from their “objective” economic interests by voting for Democrats at much higher rates based on their views on social issues. They argue that the red state-blue state divide doesn’t so much pit working class Republicans against Democratic yuppies, but rich people from rich states with liberal social views against rich people from poor states with conservative cultural views – and it’s this divide that accounts for a lot of the polarization that you see in U.S. politics today. I found the book to be pretty persuasive.

    Here’s a PDF that encapsulates a lot of the argument (though you have to fill in some of the blanks yourself): http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/presentations/redbluetalkubc.pdf

  11. There were Left movements with mass appeal in the 1950’s . In the United States there are none now. Zero.

    On the flip side, the KKK and open terrorism against blacks still had support in the Southern ruling class.

    No such political gaps exist now.

    It’s safe to say politics has narrowed while the ground has shifted economically speaking far to right, while socially opening up and moving ‘left’.

  12. Even into the late 1960’s you had general strikes in the coal industry at the same time Wallace was running for president and winning electoral votes.

    Looking at voting int he US Senate by default limits the view.

  13. Perhaps there could be a Behind The News with Jeffrey Stonecash and Michael Lind? The latter has a clarifying description of the _two_ centers in America, one for the upper echelons and one for the rest of us. Lind also has a good grasp of the polarizing debate over revanchism vs. technocracy, as seen in the Tea Party versus ObamaCare.

  14. Sorry, should have been clearer. While it’s true you had Eisenhower in the 50s, you also had a very vibrant Taft/McCarthy wing, which was repeatedly contesting the New Deal. And on racial questions, of course, you had a fairly wide divide. But the major point was less about narrowing and more about overall rightward shift. Which is to agree with your original point. I wasn’t sure about your second point. I thought you were originally talking about the positions of the party’s elected officials, mostly in Congress. And to that degree, I think you’ve seen a major sorting out of the two parties, such that where before the Dems were very much divided (and the Republicans too, as you say in your post), they now are more unified, having lost the Southern Dems to the Republican Party, and the moderate Republicans having moved to the right (and the liberal Republicans, such as they were, having been either purged or left; interesting how few Weickers and Javits’s there really were; most of them either lost elections or retired). Anyway, that’s all I was saying. If you bring the voters into it, it gets a lot more complicated.

  15. “It’s widely believed on the American left that the Democrats have moved right and that the difference between the parties has nearly vanished.”

    you should have stopped there – i’m kind of surprised you went with this weak piece. too much hanging out at The Progressive?

    sanders and reid voting together? it reminds me of way back when a decent labor democrat in knew told me that nafta/gat must be ok because all the previous presidents – d and r – were for it.

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