There’s no question that, after almost eight years of President Obama, the Democratic Party is more liberal than it’s been in a generation. Today’s Democrats support same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, favor universal health care, endorse criminal justice reform and Wall Street regulation, and want stronger action on climate change. Not only does Obama support these policies, but Hillary Clinton has launched her presidential campaign with related commitments to equal pay, family leave, comprehensive immigration reform, and an overhaul of the prison system. And facing her is pressure on her left from liberals such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who want to go further.
To Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and former Republican official, this is prime evidence of an ideological shift in the Democratic Party. “Among liberals,” he writes in the New York Times, “it’s almost universally assumed that of the two major parties, it’s the Republicans who have become more extreme over the years. That’s a self-flattering but false narrative.” Republicans are more conservative, he admits, but the reality is that “in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right.”
Some of this, says Wehner, is separate from any trend in the Democratic Party. “In some respects, like gay rights, the nation is more liberal than it was two decades ago.” But overall, he says, it’s a function of “Obama’s own ideological predilections and the coalition he built.” The upside is a liberal agenda. The downside, he argues, is political disaster. “For demographic reasons, many Democrats believe that they are riding a tide of presidential inevitability. They may want to rethink that.”
If the Democratic Party had veered sharply to the left, surpassing the GOP’s turn to the right, this would be convincing—a fair and timely warning to liberal activists and left-wing agitators. The problem for Wehner, however, is that this is a Bizarro take on the state of modern American politics.
Here, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute are helpful. “Since the late 1970s,” they write in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, “Republicans have moved much more sharply in a conservative direction than did Democrats in a liberal direction.” You can see this most clearly in the ideological profile of the 112th Congress, elected in 2010. “Nearly 80 percent of the freshmen Republicans in the 112th Congress would have been in the right wing of the party in the 111th Congress.”
Mann and Ornstein aren’t the only scholars to see this “asymmetric polarization.” Using a measure of voting behavior, political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted polarization in Congress from 1879 to the present. Their findings are clear: Since the 1970s, Republicans in both chambers have become more conservative, more quickly than Democrats have become liberal. In fact, there’s no comparison. Today’s GOP is more conservative than any party formation in 100 years, versus today’s Democratic Party, which is only modestly more liberal than it was during the Clinton administration.
To confirm this, just look at the past six years. On the Democratic side, the main achievements of the Obama years—the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases, and a variety of moves on social issues and immigration—have antecedents in the Clinton years. Yes, there’s been a shift to the left, but not because Democrats have jumped to the left of the field. It’s because Democrats have been successful. Take health care. In key respects, the Clinton plan was more liberal than Obama’s proposal. Reverse the order—have Clinton sign a health care law and have Obama have to reform it with the Affordable Care Act—and we would see the change as a rightward shift and Obama as a moderating force.
On the Republican side, however, we’ve seen a host of crises and confrontations, driven by the conservative base and stoked by party leadership. During the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown, for instance, congressional Republicans threatened an economic disaster in return for major cuts to liberal programs. In the same vein, mainstream Republicans have embraced agendas—from Paul Ryan’s budgets to “Cut, Cap, and Balance”—that call for drastic cuts for the social safety net and major retrenchment of retirement programs. Whereas rank-and-file Democrats favor compromise to accomplish goals, rank-and-file Republicans reject it, demanding purity instead, and attacking politicians who fail to heed their doctrinaire, anti-government ideology. It’s one reason why, during the 2012 Republican primary, candidates rejected tax increases out-of-hand as an almost illegitimate tool of fiscal discipline.
What makes Wehner’s column puzzling is that it’s genuinely hard to miss evidence of this ideological distance. Just look at the parties themselves. Among Republicans, 70 percent identify as conservative. By contrast, just 43 percent of Democrats call themselves liberals. It’s a substantial shift from the recent past, but nothing like the GOP’s conservative supermajority. Different data, from the Pew Research Center, tells a similar story. “Since 2004 … the GOP ideological shift over the past decade has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which Democrats have become more liberal.”
In his preface to Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, historian Geoffrey Kabaservice describes the modern Republican Party as a “uniformly ideological party unlike any that has ever existed in American history” and a “monolithically conservative organization” that has silenced or co-opted “nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons.”
This is true. Among the crop of 2016 Republican presidential candidates, there are no true moderates or liberals. At most, you have candidates with moderate affect and conservative policies. And so it goes for most of the party. Even now, Democrats have their Heidi Heitkamps and Joe Manchins. There are blue state Republicans, but they aren’t liberals.
None of this is to say Wehner can’t believe that the GOP is the more mainstream party. It’s just that to do so, he must blind himself to the facts, or at least ignore their conspicuous presence.