Polarized Politics, American Style

The Pew Research center reports in its July national survey results that the public believes the Democratic Party is more to the left than Republicans are to the right. Fifty-eight percent of Americans think that the Democrats are either “liberal” or “very liberal,” as compared to 56 percent who believe Republicans are either “conservative” or “very conservative.”  The difference of two percentage points, however, is not all that large, suggesting that the American public generally looks at the bi-partisan system as increasingly ideologically polarized along a left-right continuum, with Democrats moving to the left and Republicans moving to the right. 


Republicans and Democrats in the general public display significant differences when it comes to perceptions of the parties’ ideological positions.  Republicans have long seen the Democratic Party as further to the left than it really is, framing the Obama administration as “socialist” despite its consistent commitment to corporate friendly health care reform, its abandonment of pro-labor reforms such as the Employee Free Choice Act (to the delight of corporate America), its strong support for corporate “free trade” abroad, and its deference to BP throughout much of the Gulf oil crisis.  Despite all this, 83 percent of Republicans in the general public see the Democratic Party as either “liberal” or “very liberal,” compared to 61 percent of Democrats who see the Republican Party as either “conservative” or “very conservative.” 


Public views of the stronger ideological polarization of the Democratic Party (compared to Republicans) are roundly refuted by empirical studies of Congressional voting.  In their book, Ideology and Congress, Howard Rosenthal and Keith Poole find that the parties have become more polarized on a left-right spectrum over the last four decades, but not in the ways envisioned by the public.  Republican officials have become more conservative far more quickly than Democrats have become liberal.  As the chart below from a study by political scientist Nolan McCarty demonstrates (the study analyzes roll call voting of Republican and Democratic Congressman on a left-right ideological continuum over the last four decades), the median Republican official has moved dramatically to the right, whereas the median Democratic official has moved further to the left at a far less rapid rate. 


 Partisan Polarization Over 30 Years




Political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker agree with Rosenthal and Poole.  In their book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, Pierson and Hacker argue that, “in contrast with the common view, partisan polarization in Congress has not been caused by Republicans moving to the right and Democrats moving to the left in equal proportion.  To the contrary, the rightward shift of the Republican Party is the main cause of polarization.”  Additionally, Pierson and Hacker show (as documented in the chart below) that Republican Party activists have become more polarized to the right at a far more extreme level than Democratic Party activists have become polarized toward the left.  Whereas Democratic activists became somewhat more liberal throughout the 1960s and 1970s, that movement had subsided by the 1980s; by the 1990s and post 2000 period, these activists have begun to move further toward the center.  Throughout this entire period, however (from the 1960s to the post 2000 period), Republican activists became nearly twice as conservative, never moving back to the center.




Pierson and Hacker explain that the limited move to the left by the Democratic Party is not due to their increased willingness to challenge conservative public policies, but as a result of the defeat and subsequent exodus of center-right southern Democrats from the party in the 1960s and onward: “Of course, the Democrats have moved to the left.  this is almost entirely due, however, to the decimation of the Democratic Party’s once powerful coterie of Southern moderates at the hands of fiercely conservative Republicans.” The authors are referring here to the electoral realignment that began in the 1960s and continued in later years and decades, in which more conservative Democrats left the party or were defeated after the Johnson administration made promoting the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 into a central part of the Democratic national policy agenda.  At the same time, the Republican Party’s conservative orientation grew dramatically when Richard Nixon employed his “southern strategy,” appealing to “states’ rights” (code words for “I oppose racial integration and civil rights") and conservative voters.  This policy attracted the support of pro-segregationist, formerly Democratic voters, and dramatically pulled the party and its officials to the right.


Republicans have also moved strongly to the right due to their growing attacks on the social welfare state in general and programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps more specifically.  On the other hand, the Democratic “move to the left” is largely a statistical artifact; it’s due more to the flight of conservatives from the Party than the increased willingness of remaining Democrats to strengthen social welfare programs and fight for progressive reforms.  Democrats from the Carter administration onward have grown increasingly conservative in their embrace of neoliberalism and their declining support for expanding worker protections and entitlement programs.  FDR showed a commitment to progressive poltiics by supporting the establishment of Social Security, the Wagner Act (which legalized union organizing and collective bargaining), and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC); LBJ supported the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Head Start.  All these programs represented major expansions of worker protections and the welfare state.  In contrast, contemporary Democrats are responsible for passing ever fewer minimum wage increases, as the minimum wage purchasing power today is at a near low for the last four decades.  Additionally, the Obama administration quickly abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made it much easier for workers to unionize with a simple collection of signatures of support from a majority of a workforce.  Obama also abandoned progressive reforms, including Medicare-for-all (universal health care) and the public option, in favor of corporate friendly health care reform that has been referred to by the leading paper in the corporate press as comprised of “boons for business” (these businesses including the pharmaceuticals industry, in addition to doctors, private hospitals, and the insurance industry).


The American people are right to conclude that the political system has become more polarized in the last few decades, as the Republican Party has dramatically moved to the right at a far greater pace than the Democratic Party has embraced any sort of progressive politics.  The public is deeply wrong, however, in assuming that the Democratic Party is moving toward the kind of “left wing” politics and “socialism” in which Republican officials and Tea Party members and supporters claim.  There is no evidence of such a development among empirical studies in Political Science.  Republican officials and activists have become radicalized so dramatically over the last ten years, in great part, because of their increased unwillingness to engage in political views that are contrary to their own.  My own analysis of national Pew survey data finds that a sort of balkanization, or polarization, has been taking place among conservative news viewers for the last half decade in what increasingly amounts to the creation of what communication scholars are calling a right wing “echo chamber.”  The same conservative messages are promulgated throughout right wing radio, television, print, and among Republican officials, and these views are growing more and more impervious to counter claims and challenge.  Those who get their news primarily from Fox, for example, are largely unwilling to follow any other television media sources.  As the national Pew data demonstrates in the chart below, whereas nearly a third of those who got their news primarily from Fox in 2004 also followed some other type of television source (such as local news, CNN, MSNBC, or network news), that percent had fallen to nearly zero by 2009, following Obama’s election and the onset of the “socialist threat” conspiracies. 





Other news viewers, in contrast, have grown more reliant on other types of sources.  Of those who get their news primarily from CNN and MSNBC, for example, 30 and 40 percent respectively relied on other television news sources in 2004.  By 2009, 30 percent of both primary CNN and MSNBC viewers still relied on other television sources.  While MSNBC viewers’ consumption of other types of news fell somewhat in this five year period, that fall was nowhere near as massive as that seen by primary Fox News viewers. 


The reality today is that the Republican Party is far more radical than it’s been in any time in recent history.  The Democratic Party, contrary to public opinion and right-wing media and political propaganda, is not the bastion of socialism that it’s claimed to be.  The sooner Americans realize the right-ward turn in the American poltical system, the sooner they can address this turn in a rationale manner.  Until that day, we will likely continue with counterproductive and delusional debates about the growing "left wing" and "socialist" threat to the country.  We can either have a productive, informed debate, or continue to promote misinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.  The choice is ours.



Anthony DiMaggio has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College.  He is an expert in mass media and public opinion, and the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), an online journal devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and censored news.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (Lexington Books, 2008) and When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review Press, 2010), and can be reached at: [email protected]

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