Aug 12, 2022

Which party is more extreme?

It's not an easy question to answer.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” You're reading a subscribers-only Friday edition.

It's one of the questions I get most often in Tangle.

Typically, the messages come from folks with decidedly left- or right-wing politics who are interested in framing the other side as far "more extreme" than they are. This accusation seems to give a great deal of comfort to whomever is leveling it against their rivals.

Unfortunately, finding a definitive answer is not very easy.

I was moved to write about this after a couple of very online firestorms erupted over this question. First, earlier this year, Elon Musk posted this meme online:

The message, in case it isn't clear, is that progressives have been moving hard to the left — leaving previously center-left folks suddenly "on the right" in today's political dichotomy. Musk, presumably, was talking about himself here.

Then, last week, I was reading an opinion piece from David Jolly, Christine Todd Whitman and Andrew Yang, who wrote about their formation of the Forward Party — a "middle ground," third-party coalition they believe will disrupt the space. In essence, the three Forward Party members argued that they were going to build a policy platform that resonates with the majority of Americans who are more moderate than Democratic or Republican party leaders.

The piece was widely panned online, and I think for good reason in some places. I interviewed Yang about his plans in December, and I have written supportively about wanting more parties in U.S. politics (because our current binary paradigm is failing so badly), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Forward Party (or their solutions) is the answer. I thought a good Twitter thread written by Thomas Zimmer articulated some of the piece’s failures. In that thread, Zimmer criticized the authors for comparing far-left positions with mainstream Republican positions. Take this excerpt from the piece, which Zimmer called out:

On guns, for instance, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to confiscate all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, but they’re also rightfully worried by the far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws. On climate change, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to completely upend our economy and way of life, but they also reject the far right’s denial that there is even a problem. On abortion, most Americans don’t agree with the far left’s extreme views on late-term abortions, but they also are alarmed by the far right’s quest to make a woman’s choice a criminal offense.

Zimmer's contention is that the paragraph compares positions that are held by many powerful Republicans in Congress and at the state level with positions that are held by very few (if any) powerful Democratic figures. I think, generally, that assessment is correct (even though there are a few powerful liberals, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who support upending our economy and way of life to address climate change).

That being said, I also thought Zimmer missed a much larger and more important point about how Republicans and Democrats think differently about power.

In today's America, when people on the right criticize "liberals" or "the left" for radical views on gender, race, abortion, climate change, guns, or any of the other contentious issues in modern politics, they aren't necessarily imagining Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Instead, they are often thinking about Hollywood, Big Tech companies, famous athletes, colleges and news outlets. For conservatives, the power center is not the government, it's the culture. It's the content their kids consume or what they're taught at school; the ideas proliferated in film and music; the decisions made by major corporations to sell what they think of as "wokeism."

By contrast, when many on the left think about the extremism of the right, they think about members of Congress. That's because, unlike many conservatives, liberals tend to view the power centers of the country as the government, because it makes the laws we all live by. For liberals, a member of Congress who believes in the Qanon conspiracy is about as alarming as it gets. For conservatives, a major social media platform being run by people they see as woke, progressive liberals who can ban the president is about as alarming as it gets.

This disparity in how each side views power makes measuring extremism (or comparing the two sides) very difficult.

The political scientist Lee Drutman wrote in 2020 about how hard it is to discuss the issue:

"The problem is that political parties are not singular entities capable of easily changing course. They are, instead, a loose coalition of office-holders, interest groups, donors, activists, media personalities and many others, all jockeying and competing for power. Think of a giant tug of war in which all the tugs have been toward more extreme and more confrontational versions of the party."

I think there are a lot of different ways to try to address this question. But to me, there are a few simple starting points. In what ways have voters of each party changed over time? How have elected representatives changed? What party is more representative of your average American? Which side does political violence tend to emanate from? Then, I'll use some space to address the trickier part of this question, like the non-government power centers that exist.

How voters have changed

One of the better analyses of this question that I've seen came from Scott Alexander (known as the blogger Astral Codex Ten), who wrote a great post exploring this question.