The Paradox...and the Problem
In a previous post, I argued that in theory the center should be the driving force in American politics. Political scientists have a sophisticated name for this – the median voter theorem – which basically says that voters in the middle control what happens in a democracy, because “any politician who strays too far from voters at the philosophical center will soon be out of office…a significant move to either the left or the right would open the door for a rival to take a more moderate stance, win the next election and change the agenda.”
So the center should exert a gravitational pull that keeps our politics from straying toward the extremes. That sounds intuitively appealing, and most analysts believe some version of it, in theory. The only thing is, if you dig a little deeper, that’s not what’s been happening at all.
In fact, Republicans in Congress have been able to move considerably to the right with very little consequence. It’s a political paradox, and one that raises two big questions: why, and why is it a problem?
To start with, let’s look at what’s actually been happening over the last quarter century. Political scientists use a scoring system to measure how liberal or conservative a politician is. According to this measurement – and political scientists almost universally agree about this – Republicans in Congress have gotten a lot more conservative, especially since 1994 (some good examples of this research can be seen here and here). In fact, from 1990 to 2012, the average conservative score for Republicans doubled, while Democrats stayed virtually the same.
That’s should be a bit of a surprise right off the bat, when you consider that as Republicans have gotten twice as far from the center of American politics, they’ve also held the majority in the U.S. House more or less continually since 1994 (with the exception of 2007-2011 and the last week or so). So clearly, this move right hasn’t posed a big enough problem for voters to cost Republicans the Congress.
And if you dig down even further down in the numbers, the picture gets even stranger.
My colleague Dr. William Ewell and I took a look at how members of Congress voted between 1970 and 2012. Then we compared those voting records to the kinds of elections the members of Congress were facing: were they in very competitive seats, somewhat competitive seats, or safe seats?
The conventional wisdom is that if you’re in a competitive election, you need to be more moderate. If you’re in a safe district for your party, you tend to vote more toward your end of the political spectrum (i.e. liberal for Democrats, conservative for Republicans). That’s what the median voter theorem says. And indeed, among Democrats that’s what we found: Democrats in competitive House seats voted more moderate, Democrats in safe seats voted more liberal.
But Republicans didn’t: they voted pretty much the same no matter how competitive their seat was.
The graph below shows it. Think about this for a second…this means that Republicans in swing seats are voting much more conservative and pretty much the same as Republicans in the reddest of conservative districts…and voters don’t seem to mind.
Since this flies in the face of what PhD’s and pundits would expect, it raises the first of our two big questions: why is this happening? It’s not totally certain, but one likely answer is that like the frog in a pot of water slowly raising to the boiling point, it’s just hard for individual voters to see these incremental changes as they happen over time. In other words, it isn’t clear to voters that it’s one party or any particular politician that has moved away from the center. This is particularly true when Democrats have celebrated, highly liberal or successful self-defined socialist candidates who suck up a lot of media oxygen, and when Republicans have a vested interest in defending their shift to the right by accusing Democrats of shifting just as much to the left. Voters just hear a lot of noise.
Of course, an alternative argument that some scholars have raised (and some Republican friends of mine) is that what we’re seeing isn’t Republicans getting more conservative, it’s them getting more uniform in their positions. Actually, it’s both. While it is obviously true that Republicans now have a defined orthodoxy that few can stray from and hope to stay in office (see Flake, Jeff), and perhaps adherence to orthodoxy is more important than whether specific policy positions are “conservative,” when you look at the big tent pole issues like taxes, business regulation, climate, health care, education, guns, police powers, immigration, and social issues (including LGBT, abortion, religion) the Republican party orthodoxy clearly is conservative.
Which gets to the second big question: why is this a problem? It’s not necessarily because the Republican party is taking more conservative positions. While not everyone’s cup of tea, there is some real evidence that some center-right policies are appealing to a majority of voters (Republican pollster Whit Ayers’ book 2016 and beyond presents some compelling data in this regard), and in a democracy there is an honest intellectual debate to be had about those ideas.
What’s more troubling is the other underlying dynamic: the orthodoxy itself. While Democrats are far from immune to periodic purity purges, the long-term process of pushing those with a wider range of views out of the Republican ranks has been well-documented and much more prevalent. It also intertwined with the tribalization of American politics to the point that now, orthodoxy Trumps conservatism (pun intended). Which is why Donald Trump said he could shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters. People’s views are sticky: so adherence to one’s party has become ingrained and resistant to change regardless of where the policy agenda may go, and how much you really prefer it. The fact of the matter is, for all of Democrats’ outrage about the president and sure sense of imminent implosion, his polling floor seems to be 40%. Almost half of Americans think he’s doing a good job.
That’s why all this matters. The pattern buried deep in the data of Republicans sticking together on generally (and increasingly) conservative party orthodoxy is the corollary of today’s Trump Dilemma: in today’s polarized politics, each party is insulated from the center, the supposed moderating compass of our country.
William Butler Yeats wrote that “the center does not hold.” That has never been more true than today. The bigger concern is what Yeats’ said happens when the center loses sway: things fall apart.