Extreme Democrats?

On Monday, I asked why there does not seem to be a systematic effort to identify and replace moderate Democrats the way that conservatives and especially the Tea Party has targeted “Republicans in Name Only.” There’s a sense of ownership in that label. To be a Republican is to be conservative. Progressives seem disappointed in Democrats, but not taking control.

I’ve heard a variety of interesting responses, from the claim that progressives make themselves heard in different ways, to the suggestion that Democrats are just playing the smarter strategy. But several people have also claimed that the reason the left doesn’t primary Democrats is that they don’t have to — Democrats are homogenous and very liberal.

That is almost certainly incorrect. Quantitatively, we have these findings from Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty that Democrats have not become more extreme in the last several decades (follow those links for more info and larger images. Images originally from http://voteview.com):

Additionally, by these measures, Barack Obama is the most moderate president in recent history. More moderate than Carter. More moderate than JFK. More moderate than Truman.

Now, maybe we don’t believe these quantitative results. Maybe the agenda has shifted or something. But they ring true. Obama, far from being moderate, is widely criticized by the left, for everything from unmanned drones to selling out on health care. He’s been called a moderate Republican from the 1990s, and a close look at his record continues to reveal a lot of pretty moderate stuff. The claim that Democrats are spineless in the face of Republicans is a common one.

So I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Democrats are all ideologically pure progressives/liberals. At best, I think, the Democrats are at least no more ideological than Republicans. But this stuff is hard to assess. The country as a whole, including Republicans but especially Democrats, has moved to the left on gay rights. And the country as a whole, especially Republicans but definitely including Democrats, has moved to the right on economic intervention. Nixon made use of price controls. Obama would never dream of it. But these shifting agendas aside, at the very least, I don’t think we can say that Democrats are far to the left.

So the question still stands.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction ]

Hans Noel

Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.