Center(?) – Right

CongressWe’re lucky to have great Congressional representatives in Westchester.  But the institution of Congress as a whole?  Not so much.  Everybody hates it.  (Well, technically not everybody – Congress does have a 16% approval rating in the latest poll.)

Except for committed partisans, most folks would probably offer a similar explanation for their disgust:  Congress spends too much time fighting and finger-pointing, instead of cooperating and leading.

It turns out that this perception has a real basis in fact.  Check out this interactive graphic from Brookings.  It illustrates political party cohesion and ideology in Congress all the way back to 1857, the beginning of the modern two-party era.  And it makes clear that Congress is indeed more polarized today than ever before, with almost no overlap between Democrats and Republicans on the ideological spectrum.

But saying “a pox on both their houses” and assigning equal blame to both sides ignores a critical factor, because almost all of the ideological polarization results from Republican movement to the right.

Back to the Brookings graphic.  Take a look at the statistics for the last thirty years, beginning with the 99th Congress, and then focus on the ideological score in the lower right corner.  That’s an index that Brookings developed to determine the liberalism or conservatism of the average Democrat and the average Republican in the House.  Zero is dead center, negative numbers indicate left-leaning views, and positive numbers indicate right-leaning views.  The higher the number, the more extreme the position.

Back in 1985, the typical Democrat in Congress had a score of -.309, while the typical Republican had a score of .311.  In other words, the two parties were about equidistant from the moderate middle.

So what’s happened since then?  By the time of the last Congress, the average Democrat had moved a little to the left, now scoring -.394, but the Republicans had lurched way over to the right, now scoring .675!

To put that in perspective, in the entire historical record, there is no precedent for such a big shift.  Republicans in Congress have more than doubled their ideological intensity in the last thirty years.  Their shift to the right is four times larger than the Democrats’ shift to the left.  The GOP’s national representatives are now more ideologically extreme than any Congressional party since the Civil War.  Wow.

Any explanation for the dysfunction in Washington that excludes this basic fact is missing something important.

To be clear, this is not a comment on rank-and-file registered Republicans or on local Republican officials – there are still plenty of mainstream, pragmatic, moderates around.  They’re just a dying (or dead) breed in DC.

Political scientists generally call the Democrats a “center-left” party, and the Republicans a “center-right” party.  How far does a party have to go in order to lose that “center” portion of the label?