Asymmetric Polarization Continues, Half-Noticed

Those of you who read my book on the 2014 midterms might find this argument from the esteemed political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson kind of familiar:

According to the news media, 2014 was the year that the GOP “Establishment” finally pulled Republicans back from the right-wing brink. Pragmatism, it seemed, had finally triumphed over extremism in primary and general election contests that The New York Times called “proxy wars for the overall direction of the Republican Party.”

There’s just one problem with this dominant narrative. It’s wrong. The GOP isn’t moving back to the center. The “proxy wars” of 2014 were mainly about tactics and packaging, not moderation. Consider three of the 2014 Senate victors—all touted as evidence of the GOP’s rediscovered maturity, and all backed in contested primaries by the Establishment’s heavy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

* Thom Tillis in North Carolina (a “purple” state at the presidential level) moved to the Senate from being Speaker of the House in North Carolina, where he had been a central player in the state’s sharp right turn. A strong ally of multi-millionaire Art Pope, an arch-conservative and member of the Koch brothers’ inner circle, Tillis sits on the national board of directors of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which in 2011 selected him as its “legislator of the year.”

* Joni Ernst in Iowa (another purple state), touted for her just-plain-folks demeanor and service in Iraq, also has an impressive record of extremist policy positions. During the primary, she called for abolishing the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and indicated her support for a proposal that would allow Iowa officials to nullify the Affordable Care Act and arrest federal officials who tried to enforce it.

* Tom Cotton, who got the Chamber’s backing in Arkansas, opposed the 2014 farm bill—because it didn’t cut food stamps enough. About the program’s beneficiaries, he said, “They have steak in their basket, and they have a brand-new iPhone, and they have a brand-new SUV.” He voted to voucherize Medicare and raise the Social Security retirement age to 70, and even opposed a resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis, saying that to do otherwise would be “cataclysmic” and default would only create a “short-term market correction.”

Indeed, based on voting records, the current Republican majority in the Senate is far more conservative than the last Republican majority in the 2000s. Meanwhile, the incoming House majority is unquestionably the most conservative in modern history, continuing the virtually uninterrupted 40-year march of the House Republican caucus to the hard right.

While I noted the false media narrative of GOP moderation as a contributing factor to the results of the 2014 elections, I didn’t regard it as that decisive a factor, and I don’t know that Hacker and Pierson do, either. But over time, the refusal of the MSM to understand or accept the phenomenon of asymmetric polarization that Hacker and Pierson brilliantly described in their 2006 book Off Center has certainly been important, if only as an indication a lot of people just aren’t doing their jobs very well because they are missing the dominant political story of our era:

The GOP’s great right migration is the biggest story in American politics of the past 40 years. And it’s not just limited to Congress: GOP presidents have gotten steadily more conservative, too; conservative Republicans increasingly dominate state politics; and the current Republican appointees on the Supreme Court are among the most conservative in the Court’s modern history. The growing extremism of Republicans is the main cause of increasing gridlock in Washington, the driving force behind the rise in scorched-earth tactics on Capitol Hill, an increasing contributor to partisan conflict and policy dysfunction at the state level, and the major cause of increasing public disgust with Washington—which, not coincidentally, feeds directly into the Republicans’ anti-government project.

What I’ve been quoting is all from Hacker and Pierson’s contribution to the American Prospect‘s 25th anniversary issue, and it in many ways reviews and updates Off Center. You should read it all, including their analysis of the breakdown of the Median Voter Theorem that holds both parties will inevitably move “to the center” where swing voters live. They also discuss some of the reasons for the persistence of GOP extremism, including the size of that party’s base, the influence of conservative media, and the evil logic whereby destructive anti-government tactics create a self-fulfilling prophecy of a government that cannot be trusted.

They conclude with this sobering thought, which like most of their analysis I would emphatically endorse:

We are under no illusion about how easily or quickly our lopsided politics can be righted. But put yourself in the shoes of an early 1970s conservative and ask how likely the great right migration seemed then, when Richard Nixon was proposing a guaranteed income and national health insurance and backing environmental regulations and the largest expansion of Social Security in its history. Reversals of powerfully rooted trends that threaten our democracy take time, effort, and persistence. Yet above all they require a clear recognition of what has gone wrong.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.