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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

In theory, the movements of both parties should be irrelevant to whether their positions are justified. The interesting question to me is: why does this discussion matter so much to people? What about the parties’ grand narratives make the ideological changes of the other party a relevant fact?

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"Ordinary Americans" should include non voters of which there are mannnny. Focusing only on voters skews the results of this question dramatically.

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The problem with this whole analysis is, it tries to quantify things without defining the parameter in question ("extreme") in any clear way, much less providing any sensible methodology or theory for how such a parameter could actually be quantified. So it's all opinion, based on what madness someone chooses to believe is more extreme than some other madness (freedom is letting teenagers get assault rifles and murder little children vs. social justice is wokism and all that implies.)

For my two cents, I think both parties, and most Americans have moved far in the direction of what I call victimitarianism, an extremely poisonous attitude that even moderates seem infatuated with these days. Who's the biggest victim? That's why everyone is so upset about how extreme people they disagree with has gotten. The overwhelming appeal of victimhood seems to have caused our whole political system to turn especially rancid, so it's not about fixing what's wrong or making things better, but how we can show it's us whose rights are the ones being violated. Ugh! Walt Kelly once titled a book, We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us, and that's never been more true than now.

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Isn't the implication of your policy positions argument that a Republican advocating for segregation, women being banned from the workforce, and for the abolition of income taxes wouldn't be "extreme"?

Doesn't that strike you as completely fucking absurd?

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The world gets more and more "liberal" (for a lack of the better word) with every year. This was the case for the past almost 600 years. Obviously there is some local randomness in the real world, during short periods of time the world or a country can get less "liberal", but the long time trend is obvious.

A centrist from 1900s would be far right or hard conservative by todays standards. It is absolutely pointless to compare todays policies to 1900s policies. Everyone became way more "liberal" (or "leftist") in those years: democrats and republicans alike.

So we must compare democrats and republicans to the current centrist baseline. Or at least to the average centrist baseline of the past 10 years or something. And yes, it is impossible to define what this baseline really is.

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I think what we have observed can be summarized very simply:

1. Americans as a whole have moved to the left.

2. The American political parties have become polarized, with relatively leftist Republicans becoming Democrats and relatively rightist Democrats becoming Republicans. American politics becoming nationalized accounts for a significant portion of this (perhaps around half).

Nearly everything else we have observed seems like a natural consequence of the above two trends.

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I wish I had something more constructive to say here, but mostly my response to this analysis is that it's both terrible and fairly typical of a certain kind of rationalist "Hi I just landed from Mars and here are my trenchant observations on your weird Earth behaviors" thinking. It reads like the anti-Tocqueville: it has no real feeling for the subject. It would be like if I tried to name the best classical composer by, say, analyzing streaming data and performing a computer analysis of melody and tempo.

It's not that I can't critique specific elements of this piece. It's just sort of...what's the point? Read Yglesias on politics. Read Scott on esoteric intellectual musings, AI, medical arcana, and the like.

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Did this article get re uploaded? I could have sworn I read this before.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

There’s a lot of bizarre stuff going on here that (I claim) ultimately will have a lot to do with societal narratives and not just polling data.

There are more people than ever saying “the two-party system is rigged; it’s a perpetual outrage cycle all designed to keep the same people in power!” And they have a point.

Then there are people pointing out the radicalization on both sides…especially (insert side here)! And they have a point.

Andrew Yang has a plan to use math to unite us all, right and left alike. He is more pro-abortion than a median of the country, and more pro-gay than ANYONE ten years ago. He is….right-coded for some reason.

Meanwhile, your acquaintances from college who called themselves fiscally conservative (aka, anti-populist, I guess?) but socially liberal are now Barstool conservatives who love Joe Rogan and political incorrectness and are anti-elite, very self-consciously.

Meanwhile, Democrats are suddenly the war-hawks these past months? Even the squad? Some say?

Some of this can be sorted out by ignoring the distorted narratives social media can provide, focusing on data, etc. But those narratives can become reality—the two-way street between (social) media and political reality has never been stronger or more obvious. (Paging Dr. Baudrillard)

So. It’s weird.

(The solution, of course, is for Scott to rethink his criticisms of MacIntyre and pick up a copy of Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity.)

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I think the thing I hate most about this debate is the inbuilt expectation that there is such a thing as a "correct" policy, and both parties should pursue it.

In this case that assumption cashes out in this way: if party X has changed its political positions over the years, then we can be certain that at least some of the time, party X is not correct. Therefore we can't trust party X. Conversely, if a party has never changed its position, then even if we don't know they're right, they're at least consistent.

But what if politics is a conversation, in which people discuss and explore different ideas based on the current situation, without any requirement of eternal correctness, then views changing over time wouldn't be a bad thing.

I mean, this argument can go either way, but I just hate the way it often smuggles in a notion of eternal correctness without acknowledging it. I think this notion twists the debate.

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Like the case of the dog that didn't bark in the night, the analysis does not mention the nomination of Donald Trump two times compared to Clinton and Biden.

Trump was an extremely toxic candidate in terms of character and morality compared to either Clinton or Biden, regardless of ideology or policies.

I think who a party nominates for president is telling.

I'm hoping that both parties nominate people of better character and morality in 2024 than someone like Donald Trump.

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I do have one pretty major criticism here - where you look at 'which party has diverged further from ordinary Americans' values, you're just looking at opinion polls on party popularity / popular descriptors used for the parties. This tells you something, obviously, but voters may be essentially expressing: 'I'll still vote for party x' or 'I think party x is still less crazy than party y'. It doesn't mean that parties haven't moved away from voters' core values!

A much better test would be to look (over time) at opinion polls on what policies voters actually support, and see to what degree parties actually offer up these policies or a crazier version. However this might be a whole post in itself!

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I am a bit surprised you say "I think the Wright/Musk meme is clearly about the changing-policy-positions-since-some-starting-time question". I would argue for Musk and similar people, it's much more about the overall ideology represented by these groups (in other words, culture war stuff) rather than any specific policy. Moreover, I think the meme reflects the more extreme of the parties (woke "progressive" is clearly a younger and more left kind of democrat).

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I do think that shift in the Republican curve might be why the perception Democrats have is the way it is. That departure from previous mild leftward trends would feel like a major pivot to the right even if it was in some ways just a return to past tendencies. I can also point you to policies that current Republicans would consider much, much too liberal which Nixon and Reagan championed, like the EPA. So it's not remotely straightforward.

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Wikipedia tells me that plurality/FPTP voting (which most of the US uses) is not a Condorcet method, so the Median Voter Theorem won't necessarily hold, will it?

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This question has never really been of great interest to me. Any attempt to answer it is going to need a heap of dubious definitional and methodological assumption. For example, the first interpretation: Saying "oh we've changed the least since 1900" is just kind of silly to my mind as a benchmark. Like, what if you were to set it to 1000 AD? Clearly in the ordinary meaning of extremism positions become extreme over time. Still, good on you for trying tackle these questions.

To my mind the only variant of this question which makes any sense is your least favorite, the second one:

"Which Party Has Diverged Further From Ordinary Americans?"

But I don't share some of the assumptions you've used in tackling it. People don't fully understand the political views of politicians. People barely even partially understand the political views of politicians. They just have vague images and impressions. This isn't their fault, politicians deliberately manipulate them. You can forget about the median voter theorem.

The right way to answer the second question would be to:

1. Come up with a battery of policy questions.

2. Establish the be position of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress on those questions.

3. Establish the position of the public on those questions.

4. Work out which groups [Republican politicians, Democratic politicians, voters] are closest.

There's an optional intermediate step where you work out how much voters and politicians care about the different questions, so you don't just weight all policy areas as equal by default, but that sounds fiddly. Best to skip it.

I suggest as a test, compiling:

A) One question on Dovishness v Hawkishness

B) One question on crime

C) One question of welfare

D) One question on unions

E) One question on LGBTQ issues

F) One question on immigration

G) One question on climate change

H) One question on the minimum wage

Best to use specific questions- actual binary policy choices- that nonetheless are broadly reflective of a whole area.

This will tell us, at least roughly, who is actually closer to the voters.

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Over time both parties have moved left but the Democrats have moved further left. Obviously the median voter in any prior time period would be considered right wing today. In addition, the median person at any time in human history would be considered right wing today, as would the median person in most countries in the world today.

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It's a growing racial and ethnic divide. The Democrats and Republicans were far more similar demographically in 1980 than in 2020.

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I'm very impressed with the commentary here-very thoughtful and even-handed.

There are at least two things being conflated here, I think. There is a difference between what political elites and movers and shakers (generally, the electeds, the party apparatchiks, and rich people) think and want, and what the base thinks and wants.

I tend to focus more on the elites. In that realm, I'd be interested in what people see on the left, if anything, that is the equivalent of the January 6 insurrection which now seems to have the support or connivance of nearly all Republicans in Congress, or of Representatives MT Greene or Boebert, or the national effort to convince people that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen. Or the resistance to common-sense gun control measures like requirements for training, age over 21, etc.

I don't see it, but that may be my blinders. But if I'm not wearing blinders, then that looks like pretty clear evidence that the Republicans have become much more extreme than the Democrats.

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Freddie DeBoer had a great article not to long back that discussed only the Democratic side of things - basically saying that the media apparatuses and public faces of the party are extremely out of touch with average America while the policy-makers themselves continue to be ineffectual and moderate, either because they can't or because they won't pass more bold legislation.

If I'm being my usual biased self, I think the extremism is a reaction to a system that has completely broken down. If one party manages to hold every branch of government, they can get through one spending or tax bill a year. That's a rare confluence and is still always going to be a disappointment.

From a game theory perspective, the best play for opposition is to block all legislation, so that they can blame all problems on majority inaction. And the best play for the majority is always going to be to *not* pass legislation as long as they can tell their base it's the other guy's fault it didn't pass. Voters naturally respond by saying "these bozos aren't doing anything, we need more extreme action." And then that polarization makes it even harder to pass stuff, and a vicious cycle ensues.

I'd say this is a both sides thing, but Republicans get off a little easier because their priorities are better aligned - nobody in their base objects to a tax cut. Democrats have to use their one bite at the apple to fix the whole world.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

Wouldn't the first question be massively confounded by "what's legislatively possible?"

Like, presumably gay people in the 1900s wanted to get married too. They might have thought it was an impossible pipe dream in a country where you could go to jail for sodomy, but if you asked them about their ideal pipe-dream society they would probably say something along the lines of "I would like to live openly with my partner with equivalent rights to a heterosexual couple," just like a modern proponent of gay marriage would. Is it really accurate to say that gay people in 2022 are "more extreme" than gay people in 1900, just because the people in 2022 have enough support to achieve that goal and the people in 1900 don't?

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Why the discomfort with being disgustingly “both-sides-ist”. I think these two sides are quite clearly "crazy" in their messaging, in the sense that they both consistently advance wildly false messages.

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Really appreciate the way Scott incorporated feedback. The conclusions didn't shift from the first draft (IE, democrats are moving left, conservatives aren't really moving right), but the context clarifies what that actually MEANS. Your second graphic is exactly on point: if the original image had the conservative saying "death to all sodomites" in every panel, it suddenly becomes a lot less effective as a "dunk" on "extreme" "woke liberals".

Also, this line is key to the whole thing: "from the point of a 1990s Democrat who expected both parties to keep moving left at the same rate forever, it must look like Republicans have suddenly and unilaterally defected from this happy equilibrium." From my (far left) perspective, the utility of the conservative position was that they prevented truly stupid policies from going too far, albeit at the cost of occasionally squelching good policies by accident. This is probably a pretty condescending way of describing conservatives (IE, they are really just very cautious liberals), but at this point we've all been drifting "left" for 200+ years, so perhaps they can forgive my presumption that we shared a common cause.

I know Scott's been careful with politically sensitive content, but this kind of analysis is genuinely great, as was the discussion.

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> I may not be as wise as Matt Yglesias, but I am wise enough not to declare one side the winner without an ironclad dataset to back me up. I can’t think of a sufficiently good one that doesn’t feel cherry-picked.


This study asks a bunch of questions which seem to be fairly close to "how dumb and goddamn crazy are you," including "Do you ever think: we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of [Opposing party] in the public today just died?" (20% Dem, 15% Rep) and "If [Opposing party] are going to behave badly, they should be treated like animals." (about 15% Dem, 20% Rep), and "Many [Opposing party] lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals." (About the same between parties, maybe 1% leads for Republicans.) and "What if [Opposing party] win the 2020 presidential election? How much do you feel violence would be justified then?" (18% Dem, 14% Rep).

My overall vibe from looking at the included data: maybe a marginal victory for Rs, but neither side is looking particularly better than the other. Like, maybe the Rs are 10% less crazy, as a whole, but not much more than that.

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I look at 2 examples of party extremism, 'abolish police', and '2020 election was stolen'. one party seems to have a slightly better immune response to crazy.

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I’d expect ideological purity as a response to extremism in the other party. Much easier to vote in unison if the proposed legislation is so far away from the center that legislators across districts feel they can vote in the same direction without getting voted out.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

A version of this conversation has been going on in the NRx for quite some time now. In the mainstream of society (politics, law, the academy, entertainment) the rhetoric is controlled by the left. Even their chosen name "progressive" makes it so their policies are seen by pretty much everyone as part of a long arc of moral progress. We are told that they, and their ideas will be on the "right side of history." This means moving leftward is a foregone conclusion, by both sides. It is why, for example, whenever we elect "the first transgendered furbaby to mayor of a city of over 200,000" the resounding chorus from both sides is "there is still so much work to be done." If everyone agrees to that proposition, I wonder "what does the end state look like? How will we know when we have arrived? Can it be achieved without massive reeducation, coercion, confiscation and even mass death?"

What happens to me if I DON'T put a rainbow sticker in my business window? I don't hate anyone, I am just indifferent to your cause.

The right, spineless and really, really wanting to be part of the cool crowd, follows these rules of polite society, thereby putting themselves at a severe disadvantage because they are conceding from the very start what is OK and not OK to say. This is like letting the enemy on a battlefield determine the rules of engagement before the fighting starts.

It is also why, meaningless words like "racist" are so effective at shutting down conversations. There is a deep, sophisticated continuum of positions on race/ethnicity, but you would never know that if you were an alien who landed here and only had the mainstream as your source of information. There are only "racists" and everyone else.

As a DOD contractor, I was subjected last year to the "extremism stand down day" which was a day of propaganda designed to chill any conversations about anything interesting or substantial. Apparently, the Biden DODs definition of "extremist" is "anyone who takes their oath to the constitution seriously." Since I am a retired army major, and I fit that description, I have to shut up or risk being labeled an extremist.

On the other hand, the 2A was written when the most powerful weapon on earth was an 8" ball hurled from a cannon that could knock over a wall. I am not an idiot. Of course, I wish to "progress." But I am not interested in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Representative, constitutional republicanism preserved freedom for a very long time.

It doesn't hurt that I am only one generation away from true oppression. My father was imprisoned and tortured for his wrong think before he escaped communism.

Its also important to think about this from an almost space-time continuum perspective. There is no place on the timeline of history, (dating back to way before even the enlightenment if you want) that does not wind us up right back here. Its kind of how the nature of time and existence works. So the polls about rewinding to some previous policy placeholder history point are silly.

And so, under those circumstances, the republicans operate as a spoonfull of sugar that helps the medicine of leftist "progress" go down. They are the pretend opposition, designed to give the slow kids time to catch up. But the point of an institution, if nothing else is to stay the same--to propel whatever time-honored values it was founded on into the future by way of traditions and customs, etc. This applies to marriage, the church, the Boy Scouts or whatever.

All of this is why when marrying a wheelbarrow becomes a thing, the republicans will be saying "we must preserve marriage for gays and straights only!! As we have always done!" It's also the reason they must start any conversation about (race/women/gays whatever) with "you know I have a lot of black friends, so I am not a racist." Its the key to unlocking access to the discussion.

None of this is an accident. It is leftist ideologues who gave us ideas with massive-death causing notions such as "year zero" (nothing behind us, everything in front of us).

The distance from the median voter position is also not particularly interesting to me. It makes an assumption about central tendency that is provably false.

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I'm struggling to understand what the point of the exercise is. I mean, it's very easy to identify a party that has gotten out of touch with voters: they stop winning elections. Neither party has stopped winning elections -- indeed, if anything, elections at the national level have turned into a serious of freaking nailbiters that is surprising to those of us who lived through e.g. Reagan 1984, Nixon 1972, LBJ 1964.

So regardless of anyone's fancy theoretical model, the direct empirical evidence is perfectly clear: both parties are "in touch with" and represent in important ways a big slice of American voters, at least 40% of the electorate each, who pretty much vote for them all the time, every time. We don't need to explore that question in more subtle and brilliant ways, because the blunt answer stares us in the face every fourth November.

It's definitely worth asking *why* the situation is as static as it appears. Why doesn't one party just finally run away with it? Why can't Americans make up their freaking minds? I wonder if it isn't a concomitant of so much information flow, which parties didn't have 50 years ago. These days, you kind of know well ahead of time if you're seriously out of step with the voters -- here's Nate Silver to tell you with graphs 'n' charts, if nothing else. So the parties can adjust in real time to ensure they stay competitive.

And, in the other direction, they don't want to *overshoot* -- the Democrats don't want to move so far towards the right that they capture 70% of the vote, because that's basically wasting the sacrifice they're making by compromising on their core values. They want to be just barely conservative enough to win, 50% of the voters plus 1. And Republicans are the same, they want to be just barely liberal enough to win, 50% of the voters plus 1.

But the ability to gather the information and tune your messaging to "target" your policies and public image so accurately, to avoid accidentally losing relevance, or accidentally overshooting, is unprecedented. Maybe that's what's different.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

I don’t think I understand the question. When Teddy Roosevelt invited a Black man to dinner at the White House an arch conservative southern Democratic Senator was quoted in the New York Times as saying they’d have to hang 50 n$$$$$$s to repair the damage.

The first Republican elected governor of Texas since reconstruction was William Clements in 1987. Did rural Texas change dramatically from 1920 to 1980 in overall outlook?

So much has changed it’s hard to keep track. It’s sort of like gay marriage. Now that 70% of people support it Republicans claim they never opposed it.

And don’t get started on liberal northern republicans vs conservative southern democrats.

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Studying the motion of Democrats vs Republicans is missing the point. They are bodies orbiting the sun.

The real changes:

Gerrymandering technology => more extreme politicians

Social media => more visibility of how stupid and crazy everyone is

Fragmentation of media => more extremist “official” content to cherry-pick

And an opposing force:

World Wide Web => more knowledge across borders of which policies are working and which aren’t

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Do we have any folks who were very opposed to gay marriage c. 1995 who now think it’s totally fine? Or any any other issue where the general consensus has changed?

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As someone who was elected to State level lawmaker status, and had my votes (along with the rest of the entire House, all 400 of us) analyzed with the equivalent of DW-Nominate... Democrats tend to vote in a sheep-like herd (flock?), with few strays. Republicans do not, in general, and spread far wider. This leads to an interesting artifact that the norm of Democrats tend to be fairly stable (as a whole, they have gone more left over time, but within a short span, not much deviation) and the wide range of Republican positions (aka big tent) tends to cause some Republicans to seem further "out there", as an average, this pulls the R grouping average somewhat further "right" than the actual "center mass" would actually appear. Historically you can see this, if you look for the outliers like Ron Paul, and realize they ruin the "grading on a curve". That just doesn't happen with Democrats. Even today, Manchin might be an rare exception, but Romney, Collins, and Murkowski are not, and a handful of other R Senators would be nearby in DW Nominate rendering.

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Oh boy, I don't think this is a very good analysis at all.

The generic ballot metric is the most facially ridiculous. In 2018, the Democrats won the overall popular vote by 8.4 points. Today, the Republicans lead by 2.3 points. The net difference is huge in politics. Either the parties have undergone a massive shift in 4 years, the general public has, or the generic ballot is a terribly lazy proxy for "closeness to the ordinary American" that is much more affected by fundamentals than deep ideological differences. Put another way: if you had done this exact analysis in 2018, you'd have come to the opposite conclusion, and I don't see any attempt to justify why.

I'm also not a fan of your take on the Pew polls. The problem brought up by the commenter you mentioned is a lot more significant than you seem to realize -- you get different answers depending on your starting point. Why is 1994 a more sensible starting point than 2004? Or 2001? Or for that matter 2008, as in the original stolen meme? The other obvious objection to this metric is that averaging the questions is meaningless. Some of the questions are obviously correlated with others, meaning the real value they're measuring -- e.g. "are you fiscally conservative" -- counts multiple times toward the naive average. Even if that weren't the case, it's very likely that these questions are weighted differently when it comes to the perception of what's extreme. The race question is one that's going to spark a lot of strong emotions while the foreign policy question is largely academic to most Americans, so weighting them equally isn't very informative. It's good that this data exists, but the choice of questions was made in a different political world -- we have to take that into account when we look at it today.

You're correct about the limitations of DW-NOMINATE. The long-term data isn't very useful for direct comparisons in my opinion. I would say the medium-term data (say, the span of a typical political career) is still meaningful, but I trust it most on a short-term basis. The Pew polarization graphic is good, but I would be careful about extrapolating from it; it just tells us how strongly people identify with the labels "liberal" and "conservative", it doesn't tell us anything about what those labels actually mean at a given point in time. I also don't like how it jumps from 2004 straight to 2014; that's consistent with a story of equal polarization, but it's also consistent with the story "Side A was fine in 2004, but went crazy in 2010, so now I only vote for Side B". Since the point of the post is to distinguish between those stories and identify sides A and B, the graph isn't too helpful.

"Conclusion: Obviously your party is normal and the other one has gone completely off the rails. I’m being disgustingly “both-sides-ist” by even pretending there could be any possible equivalence. When the other party seizes power in an undemocratic coup, it will be the fault of cowards like me who refuse to call out how one party is infinitely worse than the other on this axis."

You know, just because you snarkily preempt it doesn't make it wrong.

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This seems to be a very erudite data driven group. Yet strangely when politics is mentioned it all goes out the window.

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Is there a way to see who is a paid subscriber and who isn’t and filter for either?

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I do wish the "crazier worldview/messaging" had gotten more of a treatment, because I suspect it's where a lot of the meat lies. Others have stated and I agree that many people are completely or mostly tuned out on policy except for perhaps two or three sacred cows. I believe thinkers vastly overestimate how much the average voter ponders about fed hikes, the GDP, or edicts on the airspeed of unladen swallows.

Ultimately, these notions about one or the other becoming extreme come down to your lived experience more than anything else. In my experience, living in the southeast, it seems as though my family and friends have bifurcated, with one subgroup becoming obsessed with conspiracy, racial resentment/fear and the downfall of America and the other just shaking their head in disbelief at the whiplash. I suspect that several people here have had vastly different experiences depending on their geography and local culture and those lived experiences are what people are arguing over. Which is not to say there's not an absolute answer somewhere, and, I believe, it's easy to say at the very least that both parties are getting way more extremist in posture: preparing for war, instead of hoping for peace.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

While there has been leftward movement from both parties on social issues, there has certainly been bipartisan rightward shifts on some others. A couple of examples are the consistent lowering of coporate income tax since 1950, and Republicans giving up on environmental regulation - George H.W. Bush set up an ETS for sulfur emissions, George W. Bush refused to sign up to Kyoto.

It might be people's relative weighting of these issues that determine what they think about the overall direction of public policy (along with their own relative position on these issues).

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A nice try, but the devil lies in the details.

For example: both the Republican and Democratic parties of today do not resemble their 1975 selves. Similarly, while Dubya Bush and Condeleeza Rice are considered part of a neocon Republican era - the neoconservative movement actually originated among liberals - one reason why Dubya Bush is now a "good" Republican in Democrat eyes. In particular, the neoconservative movement was created by liberals who wanted foreign interventions to promote democracy and liberal values - which the War on Terrah basically is.

The neoliberal movement, in contrast, also originates as liberals but consists of liberals who want free trade, free markets and so forth - in contrast to traditional blue collar opposition to mass immigration (read up on labor leader's views prior to Bill Clinton).

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I feel like this whole thing is a dismal attempt to define a normative state of the world which is basically the whole game of rhetoric to begin with. When the US is attacked by the Japanese, is "respond by doing nothing" the normative response? Or is "build a big military and fight back"? "Normativity" entails counter-factuals and I don't see this being addressed in the post.

Is "we should do nothing to respond to climate change", "we should do nothing to respond to greedy bankers tanking the economy", normative? Sometimes you will need new policy to uphold the status quo.

Broadly, people don't really have coherent normative accounts. Conservatives and Progressives will have normative outcomes and normative means to achieve these outcomes and the latter don't really follow from the former.

There is also a difference between how the world is in fact and in law. For instance, I don't think the rights of women have changed that much in the past hundred years but our attitudes have changed.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

I think there's a flawed premise underlying this, which is that policies are innately "left" or "right" or "conservative" or "progressive", and then we can look at how a politician votes on a bunch of these policies and calculate how left or right wing they are.

There have been times when you could look at US politics and identify some clear ideology that was driving policies, but overall (and perhaps increasingly) I don't think that's true. MAGA is not an ideology or philosophy, and Republicans in the Trump era are not meaningfully "conservative", they're just focused on echoing whatever Trump says. Liz Cheney is, by basically every measure, one of the most conservative members of the House, but lost her leadership position to Elise Stefanik, who is a centrist by normal measurements.

Is the Republican House delegation with Stefanik as the third ranking member more conservative than with Cheney in that position? That's a hard argument to make. Are they more likely to be subservient to Trump's whims? Absolutely.

So...has the Republican party become more conservative over time? I'm not even sure what that means. The party in 1984 was pretty good at reflecting Reaganism, and in 2020 was pretty good at reflecting whatever Trump says. By the standards of 2020, that makes the 2020 party more conservative than the party of 1984, but only because we've redefined the terms. Meanwhile I think the reverse is equally true (that is, that 1980s conservatives would consider the 1980s party to be more conservative).

I just don't know there's much useful being said here.

Edit: And to be clear, I think the same thing is true of Democrats, but Republicans give some clearer examples.

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I think there's an important angle that you and Yglesias are both missing.

You and Yglesias are both talking about who's gotten more extreme over time in terms of their object-level positions. But frequently, when people say "extreme", they don't actually mean "extreme in terms of object-level positions", they mean "illiberal". Less concerned with meta-level principles such as free speech, the rule of law, and democratic/republican government government, and concerned more and more only with gaining power, extracting the rewards of such, and (sometimes) pushing their object-level positions, whatever those might be.

(You sort of touch on this with #3, and sort of again with #4, but not exactly.)

And, it does seem that both parties have gotten more illiberal in the past decade-and-change (although it's worth noting that both parties have as far as I'm aware *always* been pretty illiberal in a number of ways, as is clear from the fact that we don't live in a basically-libertarian state). But I also think it's really obvious which party has gotten *more* illiberal faster (I don't think it's close).

In the interest of not getting my comment deleted, I won't say which, but, my point is I think this is an angle you are ignoring. "Extreme" often doesn't mean "extreme", it often means "illiberal", and this is something you didn't examine.

(I also think it's a lot more important. There's nothing wrong with being *extreme*, per se... if you're right, why *not* be extreme about it? But the increase in illiberalism is a real danger.)

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I think extremeness should be measured against the current status quo.

Unfortunately, I don't know how to score "abortion should be illegal" against "nationwide $15/hr minimum wage"

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I think what's missing is the sense that political space isn't a one-dimensional "left vs right" axis but a complex many-dimensional space, with each dimension representing a different issue. You can have one dimension for "How high should the top marginal tax rate be?" and another one for "Gay marriage?" and another one for "Slavery?"

In any given decade, most of these issues are non-controversial and almost everyone is on one side, while some other issues are controversial and split the populace. As the years go by, some issues like slavery and gay marriage get conclusively resolved in one direction or the other (slavery in the Republicans' direction, gay marriage in the Democrats') and others remain controversial (taxes). The result is that the populated fraction of political space shifts around slowly in this multi-dimensional space, and the "left-right" axis at any given time whirls around to point in the direction that best divides two clusters of people.

Since the 1950s the basic direction things have been moving is this: "social" issues have tended to wind up getting resolved in the "left" direction and "economic" issues have tended to wind up getting resolved in the "right" direction. At this very moment (perhaps for reasons pointed to in Scott's article on class) the controverial issues are almost all "social" so the left-right axis seems to point in a "social issues only" direction. This gives the impression that everything has gone the Democrats' way for a long time; we tend to forget the issues on which they lost because the issues of the present day no longer seem anything like them.

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There are two more possible interpretations of "becoming more extreme": which party's presidential candidates are more different from their respective predecessors, and which party is violating more political taboos.

In terms od presidential candidates, this is probably just another case of reverse incumbency. In 2008, Obama was a bigger departure from Kerry than McCain was from Bush. In 2016, Trump was a bigger departure from Romney than Clinton was from Obama.

For taboos, it's tricky. I think the relevant type of thing is, specifically, breaking a taboo about America's deep political assumptions: something like "let's replace democracy with communism" or "let's bring back the monarchy". Both parties have (in my opinion) been doing this kind of thing at an alarming rate recently.

Republican supreme court shenanigans, like refusing to hold hearings until after an election, are bad. So far the Democrats haven't matched them, but if Roe is overturned, court-packing is a worrying possibility. Tit-for-tit supreme court tinkering could fatally undermine an essential institution.

Rejecting the legitimacy of lost elections is another one. Trump's ridiculous histrionics, and his party's embrace of his conspiracy theory, are the most obvious and probably most damaging case. Unfortunately, Democrats aren't exactly innocent here. Large segments of the party view the last two Republican presidents as fundamentally illegitimate, and Stacy Abrams has gone even longer than Trump has without acknowledging an election defeat (and has received almost nothing but praise from her party for it). Al Gore conceding the election for the sake of the country was not that long ago. Yet I can't imagine either party's nominee doing the same today.

In the ways that matter most, both parties have gotten too extreme. This formula for a headline, "[Party X] has destroyed [democratic institution Y] in order to win [short term fight Z]" is worryingly plausible for either X, any Y, and any Z.

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The problem with using DW-NOMINATE is that it shows that "the squad" of lefty Democrats are relatively moderate, because they don't always vote with the rest of the party (due to being further left). If Republicans used to have a bunch of Ron Pauls who voted against their party, and they get replaced by centrists, that would show up as the party getting more extreme.

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There's been serious, significant ideological change in the parties - i.e., not just moving right or left, but what moving right or left means - that I don't think you're necessarily accounting for. Conservatism aims for different things now then it did under Bush, aimed for different things under Bush then under Goldwater, and different things under Goldwater then under Coolidge.

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"I think the Wright/Musk meme is clearly about the changing-policy-positions-since-some-starting-time question, and that it’s right to point to the Democrats as the main driver there."

Phrasings like this give me an impulse to bring up the "Which Party Has Diverged Further From Ordinary Americans?" question yet again, because they make it sound like a political party has been driving the change. On some topics (like LGBT issues) the country as a whole has moved left, and the Democratic Party & the Republican Party have mostly been along for the ride.

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You know it’s going to be fun when the post has 44 likes but almost 300 comments

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Ultimately, I think this discussion is all so much cruft. But I think maybe it's actually pro-social in some ways to focus on it rather than policy. We, at least in the United States, are the inheritors of perhaps the most dramatic era of peace and prosperity (here insert all the usual caveats about it being imperfect, not benefiting everyone equally, possible backsliding from some big govt/big business/big labor idyll of the 60s, etc., etc. forever) in history. The hard work and the dying is done, and the enormous luck has been taken advantage of. All we need to do is not to fuck it up.

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As an attempt to come up with something you can actually quantify, this seems to me very difficult to answer, partly because parties are not point sources and their members don't move in lockstep. If you want to study changes in positions, use the quadrennial party platforms: they're each single documents and have unambiguous texts. That solves most of the problems regarding parties being chaotic sets. The main problem is that in the US party platforms are meaningless in terms of actual policy to be pursued, they're just a place where you can say things that make people feel good.

Another problem is that movement of position is not a single variable. It's possible that Party A is moving left faster than Party B is moving right at one point, and then vice versa at another. Indeed, I believe that change has actually taken place.

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I guess the way to test 4, if you really wanted to, would be to ask average voters to make predictions on political, but not directly policy, questions, such as “will Trump be criminally charged in the next 5 years” or “will courts find that one or more states’ results in a major election was changed due to voter fraud in the next five years” and see who does better. This is the best proxy for “not crazy” and “in touch with reality” I can think of. You would have half the questions chosen by a dem partisan, and half by a rep partisan, to hopefully not get a set of questiosn biased one direction or another.

I don’t really like this idea, but can y’all think of a better way?

Also, before reading this, I predicted the answers would be 1: dems 2: intdeterminate 3: depends how you measure, different measures will give you different things 4: reps. Since my other threee are right, I am sticking by my fourth one

(For the record, my political ideology is complicated, but the DW would say I was in the red clusture)

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

I think the Wright/Musk diagram talks about people who subscribe to the political philosophies. They are not exactly talking about parties, so this post does not negate/affirm the original diagram in the first place. For example, almost every progressive has bones to pick with the Democrats for not being good enough on policy issues (think back to how many people preffered Bernie to Biden, but had to settle for him anyway). Contrarily, conservatives who aren't fond of the Republican party are rare (you might find an odd few at the National Review). The parties don't reflect the broader culture. The point of the diagram is to see if the ideological points conservatives and progressives make in the culture war sans electoral politics are more extreme or not. Musk/Wright would say that progressives have become more radical.

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Why do we assume that both the left and the right change over time (in a 'progressive' direction as certain changes to society stick over time while others are forgotten), but centrists stay the same?

Also, let's take another look at the Pew polls! Don't most of them actually show both parties moving in the same direction until the early 2000s, and then splitting and moving off in opposite directions?

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This piece's analysis focuses on one dimension: the location of individual groups on a left-right partisan axis. It tries to do so via judging how far along that axis the parties have moved in terms of officially preferred policies; which parties are the furthest from "ordinary" (meaning, median) Americans; which party's legislative votes are more consistent; which party considers the other more "extreme", and so forth. Other axes exist in politics, which is why so many political discussions and arguments have an orthogonal, talking-past-each-other quality. Here are some I can think of.

We have to start somewhere, so let's upgrade our level of sophistication to "the Libertarian party circa 1999". One can imagine the partisan policy preferences themselves along a social axis and an economic axis. In that sense it seems to me that policy in the country has moved in a libertarian direction, rather than leftward or rightward - the welfare and regulatory state has degraded while gay marriage and marijuana have been legalized, etc. (Arguably the social trends are reversing, especially wrt abortion).

There are dimensions beyond those - militarism for example. Or one could imagine every sharply partisan issue as its own axis; one-dimensional policy preference analysis can assume that there are very few people with odd combinations of positions - pro-gun + pro-abortion, anti-war + constitutional originalism, universal healthcare and bigotry, etc - but I don't believe that's necessarily or empirically true.

Another potential measurement is, to what extent do people have contempt for the character of opposing partisans. If I am in party X and I believe everyone in party Y is brainwashed / idiotic / sociopathic, as soon as you signal affinity with Y - no matter how moderate your actual beliefs are - I'm going to have a bad reaction. This goes hand in hand with how pluralist people are - i.e. willing to accept the other party being in charge for a while. It seems quite obvious that contempt is increasing and pluralism is decreasing.

Finally, there is the question of how *powerful* the extremist factions are. An unspoken assumption of polling is that the country being polled is a democracy; if it's not, the poll doesn't present very useful information. If a group of 20% of the population decides that might makes right, and happens to control all the might, then it moves the country as a whole toward its political position - even if most of the population is moving in an opposite direction.

It is for this reason that the aspect of partisan rancor and extremism that concerns me most is the behavior of police, rather than the behavior of college students, shitposters, standup comedians, or HR departments.

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"When the other party seizes power in an undemocratic coup, it will be the fault of cowards like me who refuse to call out how one party is infinitely worse than the other on this axis."

I find it hard to imagine how this could be applied to both parties, but that is merely a statement about my imagination. Anyone want to describe a plausible coup plot by the Democrats that could be carried out in the next decade?

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Three comments:

1. I think the "2022 generic ballot" is an extremely over-simplified metric for measuring "Which Party Has Diverged Further From Ordinary Americans?". Basic political science tells us that midterms are always going to swing against the party currently in power. And even though I do tend to lean towards Republicans being more extreme, I don't think the YouGov poll is good evidence for that either - one single poll is just an incredibly over-simplified way of viewing the question.

If you're going to use election results, midterms are a particularly terrible example because some voters will be voting to put a check on the party in power, with the full understanding that the opposition party won't actually be able to do anything either without having the White House. Voting Republican in 2022 won't (immediately) put Republicans in control of the country, it will just leave Democrats with less control than they have now. And if we look at Presidential elections, which I would argue are more representative both because voters understand they're going to have a stringer and more immediate effect and because they get higher turnout? Democrats have won the popular vote seven times in the last thirty years, and Republicans only once.

And if you're going to use polls, I think it would make for a stronger analysis to compare polling on the actual policy issues Americans say are most important to them to the party platforms. I haven't done this analysis, so I don't know exactly how it would turn out, but I think a more rigorous analysis is needed before making a claim on this one.

2. Your analysis here focuses on politicians and parties, but the original meme just says "left" and "right". To me, that includes people other than elected officials.

I imagine that a lot of right-leaning people who think of "the left" as being extreme are including activists, college students, the media, randos on Twitter who try to "cancel" people for minor transgressions, etc., in that claim - probably as much or more than they're thinking of Joe Biden's or Chuck Schumer's policy positions.

Similarly, if you were to ask me whether "the right" has gotten more extreme since 2008, I wouldn't just ask myself whether Donald Trump is more extreme than John McCain (though I think that he was), or whether the 2022 Republican members of Congress are more extreme than the 2008 Republicans were (a more complicated question). I'd also ask myself whether Trump *supporters* were more extreme than McCain *supporters* - and I think January 6 proves that they clearly are. I'd also be thinking about the most popular right-wing media outlets, the frequency of domestic terror attacks fueled by right-wing/alt-right ideology, etc.

3. "Which party has become crazier in terms of worldview and messaging, in a way orthogonal to specific policy proposals?"

Your answer is a cop-out, and the fact that you acknowledge it's a cop-out doesn't make it any less of a cop-out. A few possible ways of answering this question:

a.) How do the parties' worldview/messaging compare to their worldview/messaging in 2008 (the time suggesting by the meme)?

b.) How do the parties' worldview/messaging compare to the worldview/messaging of major parties in other Western democracies? To what extent do people in other countries view them as "crazy"?

c.) To what extent are the parties' worldview/messaging based on facts (or "facts") which are believed to be true by most non-political experts?

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I'm in the group that thinks Republicans have gotten more extreme, in part due to literally trying to seize power in an undemocratic coup—which I suppose is a hard thing to measure with, but seems relevant.

Another, more measurable indicator for me is that former Republican presidential candidates McCain and Romney—who theoretically ought to have represented the average Republican of the past pretty well—have since been blasted by Trump supporters for being too liberal. In Romney's case, he seems to have fallen well outside the realm of the current Republican party. While I've heard people call Hillary too conservative, I haven't heard anyone claim she's atypically so for the average Democratic politician, and while I haven't heard much about Kerry or Gore, as far as I know they're still considered typical Democrats. I wonder if there's a good metric to account for things like this.

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The big difference is that 2022 Republicans would have no problem talking to 2008 Democrats like myself. We might disagree on a few things, like who won 2020 election, but they will not call me names. Whereas 2022 Democrats will try to destroy my livelihood based on disagreement on just a few things that were mainstream in 2008 - some limits on immigration that should be consistently enforced, no penises in girls' changing rooms. I can live with people passing some laws I disagree with, but if people who won't even talk to me come to power, they will destroy my life. So Democrats going from the party I used to vote for to people who are trying to cancel me in just 14 years seems pretty extreme.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

I think most of this question boils down to whether you're measuring what politicians SAY or what they DO. 1994 right wing talk radio lunacy is now more or less the party line, but look at actual laws passed by Republicans in 2017 and it's basically the Reagan agenda.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

I think you might have got the wrong end of the stick on question 2. Which party's more popular won't necessarily be the one that's nearer to the median voter on each specific issue if voters don't fit neatly along a political spectrum, and it's all a bit of a spherical cows hypothesis anyway. Features like branding, salience of certain issues, the ability to build a coalition of political minorities who are all passionate about one thing, perceptions of propriety/confidence, and negative partisanship might be able to swamp ideology in voters' preferences.

Surely the way to measure it is to work out what the median (or mean?) public opinion on all the major issues is, and see which party is closer to that. Eg. if the median American thinks interest rates should be 3%, the Democrats think they should be 4% and the Republicans think they should be 1%, the Republicans are more extreme by this metric. Obviously some issues are less numerically quantifiable (abortion should be on-demand/where there's fetal abnormality or a risk to the wellbeing of the mother or siblings/only where there's a risk to the mother's life/illegal), but you could probably find some pseudo-objective means of quantification and then average them all out.

It still seems weird to say that an individual has simultaneously "gotten more extreme" and "hasn't changed their opinion at all," but I think a big part of the theory of progressivism is a model where:

1. Society has a debate

2. Progressives win the debate

3. The debate ends, the law changes, and everyone moves on to the next issue other than a handful of die-hard reactionaries

(Or just skip steps 1 and 2 and hope no-one notices)

The obvious corollary to this is "judging people by the standards of the time" - there's a big difference between someone who's pro-slavery in 1750 (in a society that has slavery and only a small minority objects to it) and someone who's pro-slavery in 2022 (where you've advocating for a massive break from social norms, presumably based on a moral theory that's independent of them). Being pro-slavery in 2022 seems very extreme. Being pro-slavery in 1750 doesn't seem very extreme, so a three-hundred year old who hasn't changed their mind must logically have got more extreme? (This feels a bit Zeno-ish to me, but I think the logic checks out...)

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

> Which Party Has Diverged Further From Ordinary Americans?

I agree that this question is dumb as phrased, but I think there is a steelman of it latent in the imprecision of the language you're using to define it. To wit:

> I do so under duress: I think this is a dumb question. A corollary of the Median Voter Theorem says that both parties should be the same distance from the average voter.

There are senses in which this is true, but only for very particular meanings of "distance", and in fact the meaning of "distance" you have to use to make this true is specifically designed to eliminate extremity: namely, the median.

The median voter theorem says that parties will form an equilibrium around the median voter. But the median is the centerpoint of the *rank* of the distribution. That is, it flattens the curvature of the tail! The curvature of the tail is the exact thing that people mean by "extreme"!.

Consider an elecotorate composed of 100 standard liberals and 100 conservatives. The median voter is exactly in the middle of conservativism and liberalism. Now consider 99 stalinists, 1 liberal, 1 conservative, and 99 neo-nazis...and the median voter is in the exact same place. Finally, consider 99 stalinists, 1 liberal, and 100 conservatives. The median still hasn't moved.

In fact, it is this very discrepancy that may allow us to construct a measure. One could reasonably define imbalance at a point in time as: the relative location of the median and the mean. If the mean is to the right of the median, the right wing is more extreme, and vice versa.

This parameter has a name in statistics: the skew. We want to know the skew of the distribution of political views. But what does it mean for a political memeplex to be skewed, exactly? Going back to our toy examples: Let's say we had 100 liberals, 1 conservative, and 99 neo-nazis. If the "conservative" party wants to win, it indeed has to appeal to that median conservative. We can define "appeal" here somewhat simplistically as: it has to be slightly closer to them than the liberals are in meme-space.

That seems like it would enforce a symmetry: If the median voter in a contested memeplex has to be roughly equidistant from the two parties, your original analysis holds. But there is an asymmetry that causes that to break down: negative partisanship. Many people, particularly people in the middle, vote primarily to deny power to the opposing party, not to confer power upon the winning party. They vote out of fear.

What that means is that we can think about an "extremity budget". Each party "wants" to be as extreme as possible, but they have to keep that median voter voting with them. Negative partisanship is the solution: make the median voter fear the other party, and you just bought yourself some extremity points. The more negative partisanship you can instill, the more extreme you get to be.

This actually suggests an indirect measure: we have surveys of negative partisanship. If we make the (large) assumption that parties always "want" to drift further into the tail, and we accept that negative partisanship is the primary mechanism by which they can achieve that, then negative partisanship should track political extremity. The stronger your base's negative feelings about the other party, the larger your extremity budget, and since we have assumed parties always consume their extremity budget, the size of that budget corresponds directly to extremity.

I'm not necessarily staking a claim here that this is definitely a great measure. More just putting it out there as an interesting idea to stimulate discussion.

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When a party has no platform against which to measure this dimension, as in GOP 2016, and became the party of Trump, then how do you proceed with this measurement? Is corruption “conservative,” is the never-currently-heard “defund the police” a mark that the left has returned to center? Now that 70 plus % want “pro choice” where is that even on the scale?

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

Almost regardless of how you might try to quantify this, it's a multidimensional problem, so "who moved more?" would depend on the weights you assigned to the various areas of contention. But "what weights do we give to the various areas of contention?" is and probably always has been a serious area of contention.

So, uh, it's *really* hard to get any objective distance from the politics of your era.

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The stumbling block here to deeper understanding of American politics is that you clearly believe there are two parties in America. In fact there is one party, called the The Epstein Party, but it has a puppet in each hand: a donkey on one and an elephant on the other.

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The tone of this piece is excellent, managing to avoid plunging into the actual ground-level political disputes during discussion of the meta-level.

Two points:

* Political _partisanship_ is not the same thing as political _extremism_. A country mostly evenly divided into social-justice eco-feminist anti-capitalists and traditionalist libertarian monarchists could very well have their elected representatives cooperating nicely, working towards finding common ground (however limited it might be), and crossing party lines to create legislation. A country where the pressing issue is the dispute over whether to make the tax rate 28.8% or 28.9% could have bitterly fighting parties that hate each other, take crazy steps to ensure that the other party doesn't take power, and vote along party lines exclusively.

* I don't have any data backing this, but I suspect that most members of congress would, throughout their careers, slowly drift towards the political viewpoints common to most people surrounded by well-educated wealthy people in urban areas. Because, you know, they're politicians working in DC. This would, if true, mess up any use of DW-NOMINATE to track shifts, because politicians are not the same between the start and end of their term, and the changes are correlated. (Unless it can track who changes their votes if the _same_ bill is reintroduced in another term, perhaps?)

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I think “those attack adds” should be “those attack ads” if it is meant to be ‘advertisements’.

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I have always enjoyed SSC because I generally found it to be on point. Yet, somehow, the focus in this is "taxation" and "lizard people". I feel that is poor framing and ask that things be framed sensibly. For example, what percentage of republican voters believe in lizard people? Is this actually a Republican candidate/voter position?

There are far more relevant equivalents that could be used to represent this discussion in a balanced manner. As you've explicitly said not to mention these, I have purposely excluded them.

I would summarise my point as "why not actually focus on the big ticket items that separate the two parties?".

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Regarding the 1800-2020 NOMINATE graph, maybe I'm mistaken while reading it (small, shitty, dusty screen), but it looks like reps are, in fact, polarizing faster than dems, but only because they were less polarized over the course of the 20th century, and are simply catching up (and maybe passing) dems in polarization.

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I find the Tumblr votes very interesting, because they say that 90% of responders *don't share* the view of the original meme. The original meme is about people who identify as liberals feeling like _their group_, the liberals, have become more extreme (and left the speaker behind).

I'm someone who identifies as left in most ways (albeit in the UK rather than the US) but wokeism has left me baffled and estranged from a lot of "progressive" positions, so I identify with the original meme; except that I don't think the right are "standing still" either, _but that's not the point_.

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I cannot fathom why this post isn’t entirely about biases in perception caused by what Twitter chooses to promote or discourage, whether as an editorial decision or a byproduct of its engagement-seeking algorithm.

Because that’s what the comic is ultimately about and that’s where at least Musk lives much of his life.

I’m also not sure, given that it’s rejected Twitter as the main point of discussion, why this doesn’t reach back further in the debate to when “Republicans are getting more extreme” was established during the Obama era. After all, a major event in this debate was Romney disavowing his own record for something that played better to the national Republican electorate.

I feel like SSC would have something more interesting to say—and, wisely, would have approached it spiraling from some other debate or concept we can have more or, at least, easier clarity on.

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Not completely related to the post, but I have a statistics problem that I think DW-NOMINATE (or similar) might fix

Every year I run a prediction tournament amongst my friends, where I ask a few questions about what might happen in the next year. I'd like to be able to compare people's performance from one year to another, but I don't know a good way to do that (for example some year - by random chance - I might set questions that are harder or easier so comparing total score year-by-year is a mug's game).

I've known about DW-NOMINATE for a while and was wondering if I could use something like the bridging method to solve my problem - some players have played for nearly a decade without missing an entry, so could I use their scores over time to identify improvement in others? Does anyone know of an implementation of the algorithm I could take a look at?

Any thoughts very welcome!

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So Scott, who is left leaning in temperament, action, and self assessment, looks at the current situation and says...'a pox on both your houses'.

Seems to indicate something, and it's not that the left leaning commentariat is correct to jump on Scott for reporting data.

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Really good and interesting post!

I think talking about political parties at all misses the point of the original meme a bit, though. I identified very strongly with the meme, but I don't have a strong opinion on how far each of the main political parties (either in the US, or in the UK, where I live) has drifted over the past couple of decades. I identified with the meme because I feel like ordinary people on the left have moved a long way to the left, and I've stayed put, meaning my formerly left-wing opinions are seen as right-wing.

It's about what opinions are approved or disapproved of (and how strongly) among friends and family, and what opinions might get you in trouble at work, not about party platforms or politician voting records (many of which may be on topics unrelated to the perceived shift).

(note that this is not the same as the "Which party has diverged further from ordinary Americans?" question that you added in the second draft, even though they both mention ordinary people; my question is about the ordinary people themselves diverging and doesn't mention the parties at all)

Relatedly, sampling "Democrats" and "Republicans" probably won't shed much light on this; you ideally want to sample people who were Democrats 20 years ago, some of whom will still be Democrats, some of whom will be Republicans, and some of whom will be disaffected non-voters (and then likewise for people who were Republicans 20 years ago).

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I first came across this meme in a Facebook post by a left-wing friend, who was sharing the DW-NOMINATE graphs in order to debunk the meme.

Since the meme made me go "YES YES SO MUCH", I tried to look into the data behind the graphs to see what it was based on. It led me along a long multi-step treasure hunt culminating in a physical book that had to be paid for, except the payment site was broken. But one of the pages en route said that *two* dimensions emerged from the clustering, and one of them was the traditional left-right economic axis, and the other was a social one, about things like sexual ethics, immigration, and slavery (slavery itself is presumably a settled issue now, but I expect this axis would include things like reparations for slavery, or affirmative action based on the legacy of slavery).

The graphs were based on the first axis, but I think the meme is based on a dramatic progressive-ward shift along the second axis, which the graphs don't address.

I also think the Political Compass authoritarian-libertarian axis is relevant here. 20 years ago, the right was more authoritarian (War on Terror, the Religious Right, etc). Now, the left has become more authoritarian (people being fired for opinions that were mainstream and unremarkable very recently). The vertical compass axis has changed from slanting right to slanting left. To those of us whose main political orientation is libertarian (in the small-L sense of the Political Compass), it can feel like the left has become "more left" and the right has stayed put or become less right, but to some extent it's just that the left have become more forceful about it and so we notice it more.

This is similar to your "Which party has become crazier in terms of worldview and messaging, in a way orthogonal to specific policy proposals?" but not identical. I am saying one side has become more authoritarian, but authoritarian isn't "crazy" or *inherently* bad - the Political Compass shows that some people on both the left and the right approve of it - it's just very unappealing to me (and Musk and Wright).

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I haven't seen someone pointing it out but according to the Twitter user below the DW-Nominate graph is meaningless


I haven't checked the methodology myself

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The whole thing is weirdly phrased insofar as it seems to assume a correlation between left/right and Democrat/Republican, when both of the latter parties are anchored within a couple of degrees of each other on the center-right.

The "extreme" behavior isn't a left/right thing, it's a kind of "narcissism of small differences" thing.

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This is a strange way of discussing this. If one is to compare shifting positions to each other, effects vanish. I feel we should not compare voter sentiment but *policies* both parties enacted and compare those with policies enacted in comparable countries, UK, Germany, France, Canada et cetera.

I would have to look deeper into this but I feel that real-life Democrat policy is pretty much in line with other rightwing liberal parties elsewhere, say the German FDP, while real GOP policy has drifted far to the right of what other conservative parties *do*. No conversative party in the West actively works to roll back abortion rights, for example. Is this not a sign of a party getting extremer, when it leaves the broad consensus of similar parties elsewhere?

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> the Republicans have a structural advantage: small, rural states get just as many Senators as bigger states, so Republican votes are worth more, at least in the Senate.

I don't see how this follows. Surely that just means small, rural states have a structural advantage. They can give that advantage to whichever party they want, it's not inherently a Republican advantage.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

Thank you, Scott. Your work here mainly makes me feel like caring so much about this stuff is all just a waste of time because I can’t control it. Here is a silly short story to illustrate the point.

Suppose we found out there really WAS a galactic federation and earth was a test case but there was a split in the galactic federal bureaucracy and they were running this A/B test on earth and we were in a holdout group for some new policy that ….

Would you _want_ to know more? Would you benefit from finding out that yes almost all global elites really are working under groups of space lizards but it turns out true are multiple groups of space lizards all intently focused on what happens to earth? Suppose they have their OWN squabbles between them which are vaguely mirrors to our own, but it gets really weird because they guided our cultural evolution to resolve their own squabble, and it’s not working out as either group expected. Do you really want to know the details?

Meanwhile I’m still not the dad and parent I want to be. So why focus time and energy into this insanely complex system that I can’t control? The only answer seems to be “because system claims to want my input.” When I tell it “neither of these choices make sense to me,” it responds, “no no the stakes are infinite, you must choose.”

And so I conclude, the only reasonable move is not to play.

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I find this analysis to be well done and ambiguous, as the nature of the beast truly is. I do have a question... people were asking what happened with polarization, you used these questions to look at how polarization has happened, but in this blog we don't discuss WHY it is or isn't important.

Personally, I find these conversations moot and that they perpetuate the negative aspects of polarization. I think we need to stop labeling people on a political spectrum that can't possibly capture the nuance and complexity of humans and society....

e.g. you can't take a few hundred million people, line them up left to right and cluster them because your clustering analysis will depend on those arbitrary categories. The only reason WHY I see this question as important, is because we live in a two party society... but like I said I prefer the meta conversations that seek to undo this two party stranglehold through initiatives like ranked choice voting.

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A couple of years ago Democrats had the chance to collectively choose one person to represent them. They went with Joe Biden, who is largely a traditional establishment incrementalist politician.

When Republicans made a similar choice, they went with Donald Trump, who mostly stood for smashing up the establishment and winning at all costs. This was exemplified by his (and much of his party's) willingness to go to any lengths to hold on to the presidency after the 2020 election, regardless of the actual votes cast - recall e.g. their take that Pence could choose the next president by unilaterally choosing not to count certain states' votes, which would have been a pretty terrible precedent for future presidential elections.

This is strong evidence that the Republican Party has become more extreme faster.

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I think the correct way to evaluate is to see how extreme the parties seem to historians in the future, obviously that is impossible.

But I think looking back in history you can look back and sense the things that are weird dead ends, that were popular among one side in politics but never could be the mainstream view and you can see what view today are similar.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

"Which party has become crazier in terms of worldview and messaging, in a way orthogonal to specific policy proposals?"

It feels like the fact that there's Republican congresspeople who support QAnon is hard evidence on this? Is there anyone on the left in Congress who is equally extreme? Genuine question. (Or maybe you're thinking about the median Republican in Congress instead of the mean, and a few crazies doesn't pull the median much?)

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

Yet another way:

• Which party has gotten more extreme faster from the perspective of other Western Liberal Democracies?

An outsider view from a Nordic country:

Democrats are traditionally moderate center-right to center. Typically in sync with Europe in social issues, sometimes behind. Right on the economy and more religious. Classical liberals with moderate social democrats at the edge. People like Bernie Sanders push policies that have already been implemented in Europe.

Republicans _were_ conservative right and Christian right up to 2010. Economically Republicans are instinctively business capitalists, not market capitalists. Very traditional Christian values.

Changes after 2010:

Democrats still have a centrist policy and but performative and reactionary rhetoric defines them from the left. The real fight inside the party is between the young and the old. Democrats don't act radical in practice.

The republican core support is not conservative anymore. GOP has adopted radical-right agenda and rhetoric that points towards illiberal democracy. Victor Orban's Hungary is an example of similar ideas in Europe. Degrading norms concerning the rule of law in Poland is an another example. Republican party is doing radically actions and even extremist actions.


Definitions for words I use. They are right/left axis neutral in a strict political science sense.

"conservative" - wants to keep the current values and policies mostly intact. Left or right conservatives exist.

"radical", "radical-right", "radical-left" - opposite of conservative. Works within the current democratic and legal framework for fundamental changes in the system. Non-revolutionary civil disobedience where you break the laws to change the current system is as far as radical goes. You can be left/right/religious/or centrist radical. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_centrism

"extremism", "extreme-right","extreme-left" - extreme measures needed to change the system completely. Revolutionary, violent overthrow possible.

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I think you’re too quick to poo-poo “extreme relative to the average voter”. Clearly it’s a hard metric to assess. But on issues like gay marriage the public has shifted a lot; being pro Gay marriage went from a fringe belief to the overwhelming majority in a decade. Maybe two? When you measure from matters a lot, which presumably drives the generational divides on such issues.

But also, after losing an election Republican leaders tried to cheat and overturn votes, and when that failed they committed violent sedition against the US. They also cheated to stack the judiciary. Those acts are extreme but not captured by any metric you can find because they each only have one precedent in American history. The Tea Party/Q wing of the GOP is unhinged, but there was explicit neo-Nazi symbolism at CPAC so you can’t sweep the crazies under the rug; they are influencing the GOP mainstream.

Balanced against that, Progressives have historically-extreme positions on the environment, the economy, gender and sexuality, and pronouns.

With so many dimensions, you have to ask “extreme at what?” Existential issues at the top of your priority stack like the livability of our planet or the continued existence of America as a democracy seem like they matter more than pronouns, no matter how far you are from historical positions or modern voters on pronouns. I guess if you listen to Tucker Carlson enough, maybe you’d disagree.

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Wow, yeah this is a loaded topic. From my experience it seemed like progressives were moving farther left while Republicans were fairly static, maybe moving left on a few issues. For instance most Republicans now support gay marriage. What I find interesting though is this obsession of showing the world you aren't the one who has changed. Progressives may have gone farther left over time, but does that mean the policies they support are therefore extreme or bad? They are still winning elections, people are voting for them.

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A more interesting question to me - is this Congress historically partisan (feels like the grand total of swing votes is like 2 Dem Senators)? And can we blame earmark reform for eliminating the lubricant that let bipartisanship function?

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Wow Scott. It's amazing that when you take out all the stuff the Republicans have won and moved right on (guns, abortion, taxes, unions), *and* start the clock the year of a major rightwards alignment (the Republican Revolution and the Contract with America), it looks like Democrats are moving left. You don't have a finger on the scale here, you're standing on it. This is a disappointing post.

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It does amaze that intelligent American adults with a concept of an outside view seem to frequently have the view:

My sides racism, riots and falsely saying an election was fraudulent is not worth talking about, but the other side doing it is evil and a threat to democracy.

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As a European centre leftist, more left on economics than culture, there’s a spectre haunting these debates and it’s the spectre of trans - particularly self identification.

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The social issues like tolerance for drugs and homosexuality are now the norm. The conversations I had about gay marriage in law school in 2008 in an open lecture would now be sufficient to get dozens of students and a handful of teachers expelled today for being intolerant bigots or what have you. As we all know, even Obama came out against gay marriage in 2008. Look how far we've come on that issue.

There used to be a bunch of people that identified with democrats because they despised the absurd fundamentalist religious beliefs pushed from the right all the way up through the Bush years. These types of Republicans seemed laughably stupid and it was impossible to vote for them.

Unfortunately now that's how I feel about the left and the drawing speaks to that. I just can't get on board with the parts of wokeness that seem illogical, regressive, and lead to absurd consequences. I'm also sick of being forced to implicitly accept a woke political opinion in a professional or social setting or risk losing status. The Musk drawing was a pretty good example of how many people feel in this area.

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And for a brief shining moment ACX became Facebook.

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Another important part is the generational aspect to this. You touch on it a little but for something over decades it should be addressed explicitly. When Colin looks at his “fellow liberals” 20 years ago he is thinking about other young people like himself. When he thinks about “fellow liberals” today those are new young people, not people from 20 years ago who changed their mind. Similarly, the right didn’t change its mind about prison for sodomy, rather, people who held that position got old and died. So everyone looks around themselves saying “I haven’t changed my views since I was 16, but the world around me is moving all over the place” and can all be accurately describing their view, while getting the generational differences all wrong.

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"Among Republicans, 79% said they would press a magic button that replaced current policies/institutions/norms with those of 1990; among Democrats, only 33% would."

What? One third of Tumblr Democrats wanted to go back to the 90's? When gay marriage was illegal? ...Did they understand the question? This throws the survey results into serious doubt for me, unless someone has an explanation.

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As a foreign observer I think both major parties in the US have changed a lot, have moved very far from ordinary citizens, have become "ideologically pure" (which is a bad thing), and have embraced entirely crazy worldviews and tactics.

I apologize because I'm not a US citizen and so this isn't my business, but I think both main parties in the US should split in a moderate half and a radical half. I guess the two moderate parties would be able to work together.

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Two immediate thoughts:

- My impression of extremism in the GOP has a lot more to do with what they are willing to do to get their way than with their actual goals. I grew up with very conservative parents and was a registered Republican for many years; the goals are not surprising. Things like prosecuting abortion as murder were things I heard about all the time as a kid in the 90s.

The "Green Bay Sweep," however, was shocking. So many Congresscritters obviously holding their vomit down to go along with Trump's worst excesses was shocking.

- I wonder how much of this sentiment (not fact - sentiment) that the left has moved too far left comes down explicitly to gender politics.

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I'll throw this out there and then people can tear me to shreds:

Democrats have gotten more extreme, Republicans have gotten more insane. Republican policies haven't changed all that much, but their paranoia, hostility, and willingness to believe the worst about everyone who isn't on the right have gone up gone up; meanwhile, their ability to think rationally....way down, of course. On the left, a different kind of paranoia (as well as an obsession with egalitarianism) has pushed them in the direction of adopting ever more extreme policy positions: the 1st Amendment is now deemed a terrible constitutional flaw, the equal protection clause needs to go so we can ensure equality of outcome, national borders are racist, we need wealth redistribution to alleviate the problem of billionaires having more stuff than everyone else, shrink the economy on purpose to save the planet. Believe all women, even when they lie, etc.

So I would say Scott's Both Sides-ism is not wrong, but needs some clarification.

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"On the other hand, the Median Voter Theorem just says where you have to be in order to win. If you are dumb and bad and want to fail, you can be anywhere! "

Fairly accurate description of the Biden administration's legislative strategy thus far.

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I appreciated this analysis, but I think it tended to focus on a limited number of variables that (to overly generalize) tend to 'cosplay' more how politics is conducted. This is commensurate with what has happened inside some of the work I've done with rationalist-community folks on a few political initiatives, where the first day usually starts with me spending a lot of time reiterating variations of, "It doesn't really work like that".

(Source: I am one of those much-reviled behind-the-scenes DC-insider-types)

Perhaps by virtue of that orientation - which, to be clear, is also my own potential source of bias - the most operative metric of 'extremism' is far more straightforward and less hypothetical. If we want to look at whether 'the 90s policy equilibrium' holds sway in one political party or the other, I think we can very easily simply look at the people who were shaping it in the '90s (or whatever our preferred time period is) and see what kind of influence they hold today.

By that metric, the answer is unambiguously, "The Republicans have become far more extreme." I work with high-profile Ds and Rs on a number of different issues. The Clinton-era Ds occupy many of the most powerful positions in the White House. The Bush-era Rs are uniformly excluded from official positions and harbor very little discursive public relevance (indeed, it usually backfires in this very "#RINO" way).

You can also look at large-scale dollars supporting political causes. Many of the most stalwart last-three-decade supporters of D initiatives are still channeling colossal amounts of money towards mainstream Ds. By contrast, look how assertively folks like e.g. the Koch network and its affiliates have run away from the baseline right.

I can walk through a more thorough analysis than I have the time (or discretion) to do in this post, but I think the main takeaway is that the variables you're focusing on - while not bad - tend to be the kind of things that feed narrativist rather than causalist understandings of politics.

(My only other issue IMO is that the caveat you acknowledge - "who is proceeding at what rate and in what direction" vs. "who has diverged from point X" - is I think pretty clearly both the factual and experiential thing people tend to be referring to, and is the 'main thing' rather than an aside. But that's simply a preference assertion on my part and not really an actual argument).

Thanks as always for stuff like this.

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>Among Democrats, about 60% thought the Republicans had gotten more extreme faster, 10% thought they’d gotten more extreme faster, and 30% weren’t sure.

>Among Republicans, the numbers were the exact same, only in the opposite direction.

That doesn't mean what you imply it means. Among evolutionists, most will say that creationists are believing non-scientific things because of bias. Among creationists, most will say exactly the same thing about evolutionists. But one is correct and one isn't. I could say the same thing about homeopaths and allopaths.

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The meme isn't about formal politics, it's about the overton window of political commentary / discourse.

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I don't know how you can look at that Pew data and say that it's clear conservatives have held pat while progressives have shifted left. I was an infant in 1994. That's not my - and likely not for the majority of other readers here - frame of reference. There's pretty clearly an inflection point in the early 2000s where conservatives dramatically shifted right compared to progressives largely maintaining the same - or slower - rate of movement left.

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The Democratic party in 1880 didn't have opinions on most modern issues... and Pew in 1994 wasn't necessarily asking about many modern issues.

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I think part of the problem with this question is that people aren't really thinking of Dems/Republicans but Blue/Red Tribe.

You'd need a whole extra layer of analysis to say how much of the crazy that comes out of blue tribe highbrow media (E.G. The 1619 Project), that comes out of lowbrow media (gestures vaguely at twitter mobs), is endorsed by the Democratic party. And the equivalent for the red tribe. Not to mention which tribe's fringes are crazier.

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I'm always surprised when users can't resist indulging their recreational outrage over data posts that don't get on a pulpit to give them their 2 minutes of hate. Even though I shouldn't be. Real "I tried getting David Shor fired" energy.

Good content. Social media has opened a pandora's box qua mob behavior (or extremism if you prefer), but I wonder if broad temperament will grow immune to its effects or the exacerbation will only get worse.

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Perhaps the lizard point is a better way to measure to extremism.

Election fraud or racial discrimination claims might have no evidence, but it is a normal thing that happens involving mortal humans.

What percentage of people and officials in each party believe things that require suspending any form of link to reality like cannibals building tunnels or nearby racist statues making people worse at maths.

P.S excluding religion because that is obviously a different thing.

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It seems to me that the DW-NOMINATE data support the first conclusion that liberal policy is more constantly changing. It's easier to hit a stationary target than a moving one, so we would expect a party whose policies are in flux will have more difficulty reaching consensus. After all, it takes time to build consensus.

Perhaps a better way to read the DW-NOMINATE data would be to see it as a barometer for which party's policies are more consistent (and therefore easier to reach consensus on) over time. Are there obvious periods of change in the data that can be correlated to significant policy/directional changes in the party platforms?

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The right and left may have similarly tight clustering in terms of their demonstrated and asserted views.

BUT the left is much less tolerant of those who do not tightly cluster.

This is important and your measurement of ideological purity does not touch on this.

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The problem with this whole line of analysis is that it assumes a stable left-right spectrum of political views, when in fact the definitions of "left" and "right" change considerably over time. Specifically, both terms represent large, diverse coalitions, and the constituencies in these coalitions shift, both gradually and suddenly. For example, the upheaval of the 1960s that created the "new left" moved a portion of the "working-class" constituency from the "left" coalition to the "right" one, and much of the "white-collar-professional" constituency, as well as the "Southern Black" constituency, from the "right" coalition to the "left" one. This shift gradually expanded over the subsequent few decades, until the recent upheaval of the 2010s, in which a portion of the "business/corporate" constituency moved from the "right" coalition to the "left" one, while a portion of the "minority" constituency moved from the "left" coalition to the "right" one.

With each of these tectonic shifts, the definitions of "left" and "right" change to conform to the new coalitions' constituents, largely mooting questions about how the parties have moved along a left-right spectrum that is itself in flux. For example, while Wright and Musk are probably correct that the "left" and "right" coalitions have shifted under their feet, moving them from their perceived "center" position closer to that of the "right", there are at the same time many people--so-called "never-Trumpers", many of whom are demographically very similar to Wright and Musk--who would argue that the "right" has scooted off in an extreme direction, moving them from the center closer to the "left" coalition's position. And of course they're both correct--the coalitions have actually shifted along multiple dimensions, and which dimensions matter more to them determines which coalition they perceive as having traveled furthest from them.

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You compare parties to voters. Comparing parties to voters makes perfect sense in regards to mean voter theory. But what about comparing parties to the total population?

The ratio of voters to non-voters is not symmetrical between parties.

Voters skew significantly older relative to the total population. They skew non-hispanic relative to the general population. They skew educated. They skew towards being middle class or more affluent. They skew slightly churchgoing. They skew slightly Republican aligned and conservative aligned.


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From the perspective of “what is the Wright-Musk meme about?”, I think it’s about what’s going on in their social circles/on Twitter, which are surely dominated by people with high levels of education. This group has been shifting left, with Trump causing the trend accelerate, and that is what I think they’re responding to.

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Jun 8, 2022·edited Jun 8, 2022

This is such a strange way to quantify things, borders on lying with data. If you start with the premise that civilization is not static and that it, I don't know, it *civilizes* over time, you would set up the roles of Democrats and Republicans differently. Democrats change things, Republicans conserve. Conservation of what works in a system is important (see: Jonathan Haidt). But if we assume that change is necessary, a moral force, than suggesting that "hey, conservatives have wanted slaves and submissive women consistently since pre-America, and therefore they are more consistent and reasonable," you're being disingenuous. You need some way to say in a modern world of potential abundance, we have more room for humane moral policies and equitable divisions, and trying to roll back the clock on rights, environment and mass violence is definitely more extreme. We might even find a way to measure it - both parties say one thing, do another, but which one is embracing more institution-breaking norms? I submit the one normalizing the resistance of free and fair elections is definitely not a "business-as-usual" party.

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The center is the US administrative state, the executive branch bureaucracies. After D-FDR won 1932 running against the spendy busybody R-Hoover, he fired 100k R federal employees. Then he changed to a big government tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect. By 1933 he hired 500k D federal employees and the Democrats went from a small-government, states-rights party to the party of big government. D-LBJ and D-JFK changed civil service law to formalize D party organizations as public service unions.

Why bother with ancient history? Because ever since the Democrats have monopolized the US administrative state. Therefore, the Democrats are the part of the center. And, the center has expanded wildly. The tail now wags the dog. Elected D now obey bureaucrat orders. Making them even more centrist.

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Okay, I have to admit I just read Scott’s essay.

There were a lot of comments already and I had a peek and saw the “You are a poopie head” “No *you* are the poopie head!” stuff going on and got caught up in midstream. Oops. I would have phrased some of my statements below differently or not commented at all if I had read the essay in full.

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Democrats have become more extreme in rhetoric, no question. Their party line no longer allows biological distinctions between men and women.

Republicans have become more extreme in tactics. Noticing that Democrats have successfully captured every institution, they support less democratic methods of restoring balance.

My opinions on stuff would be pretty standard in 1990, but increasingly I think the only way to reverse course is for a new Caesar to emerge.

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It's important to realize that the categories "liberal" and "conservative", "left" and "right" and "Republican" and "Democrat" all change over time, and also change in relation to each other. Thus if you go far enough back, comparisons really are meaningless. (When I was teaching US history, I used to tell my students that if they mapped any antebellum political party onto either of the current ones, they weren't capturing the historical thought at work). As a very rough analogy, it's similar to the way that baseball statisticians often disregard 19th century stats, simply because the game was too different to really compare.

Two other things are important to note: first, there was a long process—one of the well-known phenomena to American historians—whereby, over the course of the 20th century the Republicans and Democrats more-or-less switched constituencies: where the south used to be reliably Democratic, it became reliably Republican, and where New England used to be reliably Republican, it has become reliably Democratic. (There are lots of caveats here I am skipping.) If you look at turn of the century maps from circa 1900 and circa 2000, they are close to mirror images of each other. This process was not entirely complete by 1965—it is usually argued that the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 & 1965 respectively are what caused the final push—but it was well on its way. (This is complicated by the fact that some long-time conservatives Southern Democrats never changed parties (some did, not all), but were then replaced with Republicans who voted very similarly if not identically to them and who were their clear political heirs. This process took a while.) In some ways it only finalized in 1994 with Gingrich's takeover of Congress. But the heart of it was 1932-1965, I think.

The other important thing to note is that in the 20th century American politics changed dimensionality. In the 1950s you needed two variables to chart the political positions of congressmen; by 2000 you needed only one. (To oversimplify, in addition to liberal/conservative there was an axis about racial views.) This too makes such calculations tricky.

Oh, and while "right" and "left" were regularly used in Europe since the French Revolution, they were a later import to the U.S. The telling anecdote here is that Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America" in 1918 and then stuck it in a drawer for 20 years before releasing it in 1938. But when he did, he had to make a few changes. In particular, the line "Through the night with the light from above" in 1938 had been "Through the night to the right [something]" in 1918. But, he said in a letter, he couldn't use that in 1938, because "to the right" would read as political at that point (as opposed to meaning just "to the moral"). A good sign of culture change.

So when can we go back to? That's a tough question. I think we can go back at least to 1965: at that point the parties were *fairly* recognizable. And you might say that even as far back as the 1920s the parties were recognizable enough to compare. Any further than that, however, you get a muddle: throughout the progressive era both the Republicans and Democrats variously aimed for and fought the progressive mantle (see the mess that is the 1912 election).

All of which is to say, I strongly suggest not trying to extend these calculations back that far. It's not true that in 1900 conservatives wanted prison for sodomy and liberals wanted a monetary fine, because it *just wasn't a political issue*. It's like asking the parties' view on the gold standard today. Yes, there are a few fringe people who have views on it... most people don't think about it and probably don't know what it is or what they would think about it. It's the wrong way to judge the parties. So please, leave off the 1880 and 1900 analogies; they'll be more confusing than anything else.

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A few years ago I would have agreed with the conclusions of this post. A couple of years ago I might have still landed there though with significant misgivings.

But today? Sorry, no. Only one of our political parties has actually literally tried to overturn a national election.

And still to this moment insists that it was in the right to do so.

And is right now, openly and without apology, preparing itself to try again and "finish the job" the next time they lose an election.

A dozen U.S. senators of one party, and only one, traveled to sit and talk behind closed doors with Vladimir Putin literally on the 4th of July. Only one party's core activists just held their annual national convention in Hungary and gave a standing ovation to Victor Orban.

Only one party's Vice President of the United States has had to reject the demand by its POTUS to illegally intervene in the constitutional process of counting electoral ballots, and had his political standing within that party trashed for having done so.

Etc, etc. Anyone paying any attention can now add a dozen more entries to this list.

That change in the GOP renders this whole discussion, at best, quaint.

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This was excellent bait to get people to reveal whether or not they need banned. Also an interesting analysis that conforms pretty closely to my perceptions, so of course I like it!

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Thinking about this piece more, I think my biggest issue with it is that I'm not sure it's asking the most useful question: it doesn't engage much with the question of objective truth, which I would think should matter for a rationalist analysis.

I'll start my explanation with a fake/constructed example: imagine you had an Orange Party and a Purple Party, and the Orange Party believed the moon was made of cheese, and the Purple Party thought it was made of rock. In the past, almost everyone believed the moon was made of cheese, but now 20% of the Orange Party and 90% of the Purple Party have concluded that it's actually rock. The public is roughly split down the middle on the question. We can also imagine for the sake of this hypothetical that the Orange Party are well-mannered policy wonks whose messaging of their moon-cheese beliefs mostly takes the form of politely suggesting that the country should allocate lots of money into sending cheese-mining machines into space to solve the hunger crisis, while the many members of the Purple Party will loudly insist that they think anyone who believes the moon is made of cheese is a moron who shouldn't be in office.

At least three of your metrics suggest the Purple Party is more extreme - their beliefs have changed more over time, there are fewer dissidents to the party orthodoxy, and their messaging is more "extreme". But I would argue that it's highly relevant, to the extent this is all just a proxy for deciding which party is "better", that THE MOON IS NOT MADE OF CHEESE. Does it matter if the Purple Party is voting in lockstep if they're *right*? Is it some kind of problem that their beliefs have changed, when their past beliefs were wrong and their current beliefs are correct?

So to move back to the real world, let's consider two examples for which I believe there are factual answers: evolution (and whether it should be taught in school) and the existence of human-driven climate change. Several of your metrics would suggest Democrats are more "extreme" on these issues than Republicans. I would argue that that's evidence that the questions you're asking are not very useful.

Now, I'm obviously coming at this from a liberal perspective. I'm sure the conservative commenters on here could come up with examples in the opposite direction. And most policy questions don't have as obvious of a factual answer as "is evolution real?" does. I certainly don't expect you to try to evaluate all the existing evidence on every point of American political contention. But I would think a rationalist analysis would want to at least acknowledge "to what extent does this party create policies based on real-world evidence" as an important question, even if it's not one that you feel you can answer in a blog post.

And finally: I do feel that there's an ethical/moral dimension that you're leaving out, which many people on both sides are keeping in mind when they talk about the other party's extremism. You gesture to this with your "conservatives want a jail sentence for gay people" example. Of course, even most conservatives don't actually want jail sentences for gay people, but I would argue that there is an ethical difference between, say, "people should be able to fire their employees just for being gay" and "people should not be able to fire their employees just for being gay" - that is, that regardless of any of the metrics you suggest, the former is inherently a more extreme position.

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Imho major problem with the question "Which Party’s Policy Positions Have Changed More In Their Preferred Direction Since Some Starting Year?" is that it is very sensitive to the choice of a baseline year.

Pew, in the data featured in the post, has chosen 1994, which pretty unabimguously makes Democrats more extreme in that sense. But this this might be (I have not done my own research, so I ought to hedge a lot) just because an era between the Fall of Communism and the Great Recession happened to be in many respects high tide of the Right in the Western World.

Perhaps if 2010, or 1980, or even 1970 were chosen as a baseline, then answer to this question would be different.

But it is true that this uncertainty pertains only to post WW2 era - Western World before that was clearly far more rightwing in our sense, since it started being a recognizable thing.

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The people who scare me the most are those who have an immediate answer to this question, I think.

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I think a frustration many feel is in the past a 51% Republican victory meant a moderate gov't. Today a 51% Democratic victory means a moderate gov't. But a 51% Republican victory means the GOP gets everything they want, might as well make it 100%. Sure there are occassional exceptions (McCain killing the attempt to kill Obamacare), but those are certainly getting fewer in the future.

By % here, I mean seats won. Of course it isn't helping that Republican governments more and more are won with a majority of voters rejecting them.

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I think there is a frame-loaded nature to the question as well; at a mechanical level, if you stick to your beliefs without updating them while everyone around you is changing theirs, you will eventually, inexorably, be at the extreme end of the distribution (in the non-normative / statistical sense of the word). But the normative conclusions from this observation depend on your ethical frame of reference; if you're a deontologist operating from a fixed interpretation of a set of rules like the Bible, then that set of rules is your frame of reference, and everyone else is moving relative to it; it's a morally bad thing that your long-held and immutable beliefs are now in the minority, and it's the others who are getting more extreme/bad (also, because the mean is moving relative to you, any increase in variance means that the position on the opposite side of the mean from you is moving twice as fast, vs. an observer considering things from a frame fixed at the mean).

And on the other hand, if you believe in moral progress and don't have immutable "laws", and update your beliefs along with the shifting mean (i.e. the (I think) standard progressive/liberal world-view), then social consensus is your frame to make observations from, and by the moderate liberal reference frame it's the conservatives (and the woke progressives) that are increasingly extreme.

As in Physics, the frame of reference determines who is moving and who is stationary, and I suspect this makes part of the discussion essentially unresolvable.

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A few questions, BLUF:

1. Is the left/right dichotomy still valid?

2. Is it worth considering another definition of "extreme", something like "preserving vs. abandoning norms"?

3. Is the "width of the spectrum" increasing actually a separate phenomenon than the mean shifting; increased polarization vs. change in beliefs in the population?

In more detail:

Is it even valid to use the one-dimensional "left/right" spectrum to cluster politicians any more? My takeaway from 2016 was that a new "populist/establishment" axis became more salient, Sanders and Trump being the respective parties' incarnations of that new axis of rhetoric.

I suppose it might be reasonable to question that on the grounds of it just being rhetoric, since Trump's major policy achievement was the pro-establishment / anti-populist corporate tax cut that anti-Trumpists like Romney thoroughly approved of. But the China trade-war and resulting tariffs/protectionism seemed quite anti-establishment-Republican to me.

I'll try to comply with your pre-moderation request by simply suggesting that it's worth considering an axis of "conserving institutions/norms vs. tearing them down", on which the general Trump playbook of declining to nominate appointees to seats (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2018/mar/16/donald-trump/why-trump-appointments-have-lagged-behind-other-pr/) seems to be at least a break from the norm of Republican presidents, and "Find me the votes" is the more concerning break from established norms that underlies many Democrats' claims that the Republican party is the increasingly-extreme one. I think you could make the case that Sanders would have engaged in more "tear down the institutions" behaviors so this is not a purely one-sided claim, but it is (to me?) clear that the Trumpists have taken over the Republican party, while the Sanders/progressive wing has not decisively defeated the Biden/establishment wing of the Democrats (nor has it been completely squashed). And so I think there is an axis here that would be interesting to investigate and try to quantify.

I also think it's worth noting measures of political polarization (increasing in the US over the last few decades, though apparently now approaching "normal levels" of polarization from a historically-abnormally low baseline), which supports the increased "width of the spectrum" in the diagram above, potentially independently from the shift in the mean. Relatedly, it's worth considering the axes along which polarization occurs (IIRC with 2016 being an important and rare "pole flip" from Republican party being wealth-polarized vs. Democrat party being education-polarized, to Republican party being negatively-wealth-polarized vs. Democrat party being both wealth- and education-polarized.) This is tackled in Ezra Klein's book "Why we're polarized", discussed in http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/260-why-were-polarized-ezra-klein/ and also http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/248-are-democrats-being-irrational-david-shor/.

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I think it's funny that you essentially just get the obvious out of the way first and then bounce around some. Yes, we know from first principles that leftists are driving overton's window and thus are constantly 'more extreme' and have been since forever (Fascist revolutions withstanding. And no, you're not in one). Cthulhu swims left and everyone should know this by now. That is the ONLY thing we know, because the following question is impossible to parse in this context:

What is the 'objective' domain of viable policy? Because if there is a hard wall we're coming up against, that makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between living in the precursor to the glorious gay luxury space communism utopia or the inexorably falling Babylon, and figuring that out requires being good at the very things humans will never be good at.

Predicting the future.

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This is subjective and fuzzy and all those bad things, but...

I generally try to summon up my idea of an ur-Democrat/Republican from 10, 20, whatever years ago, compare it against the modern equivalent.

And then I try to summon up the mind-state of Belisarius from 10, 20, whatever years ago, and imagine how I would have reacted to modern Democrat versus modern Republican.

In both instances, I think the Democrats come off as more 'extreme'. They've moved significantly leftward on pretty much all social issues, and moderately leftward on many economic ones. (With maybe an exception for free trade support)

In the latter instance, I think that 10-20 years ago Belisarius would recognize most Republican positions as being the same, or having moved leftward. The worst thing that pops up is embarrassment at them voting for the guy from The Apprentice.

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The problem with DW-NOMINATE is that it treats each legislative session separately and there is no valid way to compare the scores of legislators from different legislative sessions. See https://themonkeycage.org/2012/05/polarization-is-real-and-asymmetric/

See also https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-mismeasurement-of-polarization, which points out that, for example, “Senator George Pendleton of Ohio, who served during the late 19th century, scored a -0.42, and was therefore one of the more liberal members of Congress in American history. He was significantly more liberal than, say, today's Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who scores a -0.37. Yet Pendleton voted against many pension bills and public-works projects — virtually the only types of government spending at the time. He was also a noted opponent of the 13th Amendment, which put an end to slavery. Menendez is a standard-issue 21st-century Democrat: He supports a host of measures — from massive expansions of federal spending to family-planning funding under Medicaid — that would have made Pendleton blanch. And presumably, Menendez is a fan of the 13th Amendment.”

So DW-NOMINATE scores are not valid to compare legislators from different legislative sessions.

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So Musk's meme is correct, Democrats have "gotten more extreme", because they no longer think homosexuality is a bad thing, whereas Republicans aren't so sure.

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DW nominate doesn't prove what is claimed here. Imagine the only political issue was the number of buttons on the space force uniforms. Debate rages back and forth, with the hardcore half of democrats wanting 4, moderate halves of both parties wanting 6, and the hardcore half of republicans wanting 8. That gives the republican party an average nominate score of 7.5 and the democrats 2.5, because the range of debate is 8-4

Now, over time, there are some elections and a new crop of super liberal 2 buttoners are elected and make up 1/3 of the democratic members while the republicans remain evenly split between 8 and 6 buttons. how do the scores change? well, now the range of debate isn't 8-4, it's 8-2, the democratic score goes UP to just under 5, while the republican party goes up to 8.75. And if the republicans give up on 8 buttons entirely and go over to 6 buttons, their score shoots up to 10, while the democratic score shoots up to 6.6. In other words, because of the way nominate works, by getting more liberal and trying to be less polarizing, the republicans look more extreme and democrats more moderate, the exact opposite of what actually happened in our toy model, because the terms of debate shifted.

Nominate has some uses, but despite claims made for it, it cannot measure partisan drift over time unless goalposts remain fixed, which they never do.

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Making a divide R and D, seems to miss a whole section of the population, that hates both parties. ~equally. The only congressmen I liked are those that have been driven away from the system. Because it's party first, self second and maybe constituents or country third.

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This blog post is a stress test Scott is running on the local commentariat to illustrate some completely different point, and I claim my five pounds.

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Well if we put aside the whole alternate reality of the Trump presidency - which is pretty difficult - I’d say the progressives at the edge of the Democratic Party have become more extreme. ‘Birthing person’? Really? Defund the police? A ridiculous slogan, a worse idea.

I think it was Bill Maher that said when your ideas start to look like headlines in The Onion, it’s time to reevaluate what the hell you are thinking.

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Possibly relevant:

Our Violent Era: How Social Media Algorithms are Kickstarting a Civil War


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I think it's fairly safe to say that the party that runs against Motherhood, Apple Pie, and America's historical heroes is pretty darned extreme.

The Republican Party has changed as well. It has become much more blue collar. In some respects Trump has moved the party leftward. Trump was trying to enforce a national picket line in order to raise blue collar wages. Reminds me of Dick Gephardt. And then there was Trump's foreign policy of talking to Evil Dictators and gaining independence from the Middle East through tapping into our immense reserves of dirty energy. Those were Jimmy Carter's policies.

This country has had a not-quite-viable third party that pops up to the surface once in a while. This party is suspicious of both big government and wealthy elites. This party has also been anti-immigration. It surfaced as the American Party back in the early days of our republic. It resurfaced as the Populist Party in the late 1800s. It came back as the Reform Party in the latter part of the 20th Century. It came to actual power just recently as Trump led them in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Whether the takeover will hold remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Democratic Party has turned into that mix of elitism and socialism foretold in Gary Allen's "None Dare Call it Conspiracy" -- with a healthy helping of active anti patriotism and anti Christianity thrown in for good measure.

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Great framing of the question(s), but I’d like to point out some data nuance that can help you home in on answers. First, I think we don’t have to go back to 1880 as a possible party divergence point, we can simply ask when the percentage of party-line votes in Congress began to significantly escalate. And what we know is that party-line voting went from around 60% in the early 1970’s to around 90% on average today (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1065912917722233).

Some might be tempted to say that even 60% is large, but we have to keep in mind the countervailing tradeoff, which is that citizens want parties to embody some kind of “brand,” otherwise a politician’s party ID offers no prediction of how she will vote. We also want disagreements between the parties, else we may drift into a united front of elites, with no genuine choices for voters. So we can stipulate that some party-line voting is good, but given that our political institutions (federalism, balance of powers, bicameral legislatures, etc) push us toward compromise in the exercise of government power, party-line voting as a near-constant feature of the system signals democratic breakdown.

Next, it's critical to differentiate between party shifting—meaning that some significant core of a political party has moved its policy preferences (the analysis that follows doesn’t overly depend on how you conceptualize how that core is comprised, e.g., loyal voters, donors, bosses in smoke rooms, etc)—and party sorting, which is when people who think alike gather into a single party.

The latter is a significant driver of the apparent gap that Pew pollsters get the vapors over—Democrats who were pro-gun became Republican, Republicans who were pro-environment became Democrats, and so on. Widening gaps between parties, then, is not evidence of a shift in the preferences of American voters so much as a grouping of conservatives in one party, and liberals in the other. You can peruse the very reliable American National Election Studies data (https://electionstudies.org/resources/anes-guide/) to see that American opinions about most issues, be they welfare, crime, taxes, the military, etc, haven’t deviated significantly over the past 50 years.

This matters because the implication of our question is that the parties are moving not just away from each other, but from the voters. Another way of looking at this is that neither party is necessarily moving away from what Americans want. Each party is just specializing its appeal to only a subset of the American populace. And in doing so, each party alienates a significant portion of Americans.

Now, your reference to the Median Voter Theorem might get us past this impasse, insofar as each party has an incentive to “soften” its positions to win 50% + 1 of the electorate, in confidence that even if its most ardent supporters are unhappy with this squishiness, they have no viable alternative. The only problem with invoking the MVT is that it was upended by Ken Arrow in 1950 (https://web.archive.org/web/20110720090207/http://gatton.uky.edu/Faculty/hoytw/751/articles/arrow.pdf). In a nutshell, because American (indeed, human) political preferences are not distributed on a single left-right continuum, there is no satisfying the Median Voter, because who the Median Voter is depends on what issue we’re talking about.

The beautiful reality about American voters is that most of them don’t fall onto the liberal-conservative scale in a way that suits political scientists. This voter wants more welfare spending AND the death penalty, that one wants lower taxes AND gun control. In a multi-dimensional policy space, the Median Voter Theorem runs into real trouble.

Little wonder, then, that the political class has focused so intensely on trying to instill hatred in voters for the Other Party. If you come to the ballot box with your particular, uniquely ordered concerns about abortion, crime, inflation, and so on, you can’t be counted on to toe the party line. But if the chief notion in your mind, come vote time, is how the Other Party is destroying America, then you’re willing to eat whatever line of horseshit your party leaders are selling.

Viewed in that light, the question kind of falls apart, because which party became more extreme, faster doesn’t matter nearly so much as the present reality that both parties are invested in destroying civil society, and increasingly exercising power undemocratically via judges and unelected executive agency officials. In that light they are both extreme, and dangerous.

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DW Nominate is a shitty site. They come up with insane lists of who is more liberal than who because they only track adherence to party leadership policy rather than actual ideology.

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The whole Democrat v Republican scenario is a false dichotomy. There are more independents in my state than Democrats, and it was independents who elected both O'Bummer and The Orange Menace.

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One party supported a literal coup instead of peacefully ceding power in the last Presidential election. One party is about to turn women into birthing vessels by confusing insemination with consent to motherhood. But let’s worry about too many pronouns or genders or “birthing people” being a phrase instead because thinking is hard and red party make strong ooga ooga noises.

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This post is somewhat disappointing. You opened up with a meme asserting that while 2008 liberals became 2020 woke progressives, conservatives didn't budge. And then you spent the rest of the article mostly talking about Democrats and Republicans. These are two very different dichotomies and for someone like you, it's disingenuous to conflate them.

Any honest discussion of liberalism, progressivism, and conservatism necessarily needs to at least try to define them. During the 2020 protests, there were "liberal" protestors marching with banners saying "Death To Liberals!". If you treat "leftist" and "liberal" as if they were simply synonyms, that just doesn't make sense. If you actually define "liberal", then it makes sense.

"Conservative" is a boring term, since it typically just stands as an antonym to progressive, indicates a desire to return to a bygone era, or represents alignment with some repressive faction. By that last meaning, to me and from a 90s progressive's perspective, the woke people can certainly *feel* conservative, but nobody would ever call them that.

As to whether the Republicans have gotten more "extreme", I think that's a very hard case to make. The Bush administration had millions of Americans chanting "USA!" in jingoistic fervor, manufactured a casus belli to invade a country, got a million people killed, passed the patriot act...And we're somehow asserting that Trump-era Republicans are more extreme than that?

And to the question of whether the Democrats have gotten more "extreme", typically people would point to the actions of the woke progressives. Except that woke progressives are a minority of Democrats(that one article said 8% of the general population. With 60% voter turnout, that would mean they're something like 25% of voting Democrats?) Certainly the woke crowd is trying to their damnedest to give the appearance of being extreme, but the identity politics battlefront is the culture war which is happening mostly external to party politics. The woke folk may be political extremists in the politics of the academy, in hollywood/entertainment, in the professions, and in corporations, but that doesn't map directly to the Democratic party.

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How about 240 "parties" instead of 2?


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Would you be interested to learn that from over here (Germany) many people (including me) have the strong impression that USA has one party with two right wings?

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To me part of the problem is that we can't easily untangle the function from its derivatives

Like, you can be called conservative because you want the political situation to stay exactly as it is (to the extent that this means anything in changing material conditions)

But you can also be considered conservative if you want a constant rate of change, as is allowed by current political institutions

Or maybe you want the political institutions to change to adapt to the way the public opinion evolves, but no faster

Or maybe you want the institutions to push public opinion, but not necessarily in the direction that it would spontaneously evolve

So in the end, are you "progressive" only of you want an exponential rate of change along all political spectra?

I don't think anyone thinks that, even the most leftists (although I suspect it's a common mechanism by which liberals are depicted as 'not really on the left')

So yeah, in my eyes any conservative/progressive spectrum will result in an unclear mess.

Nice to see all that data though!

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Since there has been so much disagreement here and doesn’t seem to be a shared observable reality at times I’ll mention my news sources so you can adjust for my biases. NYT, WaPo, PBS, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Politico. I avoid cable news and social media.

I’d welcome any recommendations to round this out

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Jun 9, 2022·edited Jun 9, 2022

The Handmaid's Tale analogy really does not work at all because, as you've amply demonstrated within the post, Democrats have moved at least approximately proportionally to the average voter, leaving each party about as far away from centre.

I know you say you don't care about divergence from the average voter, but your hypothetical doesn't hit the right intuition levers at all if you don't also stipulate that the average position of the populace is equidistant from Handmaid's Tale theocracy and current boring Democrat policy.

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"Which party has become crazier in terms of worldview and messaging, in a way orthogonal to specific policy proposals?"

This is vague enough to be virtually unanswerable. I think a better framing of this question would be "Which party is more willing to challenge the legitimacy and authority of the government as a whole, and support tactics that break precedent and undermine long-term stability?" I think that gets to the heart of the issue here, and it's the sort of thing that can at least roughly be measured objectively. (Most likely, the answer is "whichever party isn't currently in control of Congress," but maybe one party is more guilty of it than the other once you account for that?)

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