Michael Tomasky on the GOP’s Rush to the Right in Congress

A new study tells the truth about who’s to blame for the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington.

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My longer-suffering readers will know that one of my great obsessions is with the phrase “both sides are guilty.” You know how it works. The Republicans in Washington do something extreme, like hold up an appointee to the Fed because he doesn’t have the right qualifications, even though he won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Then, when the howls start, they produce evidence that the Democrats once did something vaguely similar, which indeed they probably did, but upon close examination it wasn’t really remotely comparable. Then the media say: “Ah, you see, both sides do it.” This both-sides-ism is one of the great curses hanging over Washington, and it’s a fantastic racket for conservatives: aware as they are that the mainstream media worship the idea of “balance” (the worship itself the result of the admittedly effective lobbying by right-wing pressure groups since the late 1970s), they know that if they can just publicize one little example that appears to suggest parity in the bad-faith department, they can get away with whatever.

Well, this week comes new and updated empirical evidence by the leading scholars in the field of political science that both sides don’t do it. Or, to be more accurate: yes, both sides do it, but saying that both sides do it equally is the equivalent of saying that a murderer and a purse snatcher have equally violated the law.

Keith T. Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University have been studying political polarization for years. They are the leading experts we have on the topic. And, three days ago on their blog, they released updated numbers (to include the current Congress) looking at all votes taken in both the House and Senate going back to 1879 and measuring over that period the ideological positions on a scale of the respective parties. You can read the post and look at the relevant graphs at the link above.

Result? “What is accurate to say, beyond doubt,” says Poole, “is that the Republicans have moved out to the right very fast, while the Democrats have drifted to the left, maybe, but nowhere close to what the Republicans have done.” Let’s check the numbers.

They use a scale, the vertical axis on their graph, that sets 0 as the ideological middle and gives liberal ideology values decreasing from 0 and conservative ideology values increasing from it. In other words, a -.2 Democrat is moderate-to-liberal, a -.5 Democrat is quite liberal, a +.2 Republican is moderate-to-conservative, a +.5 Republican is quite conservative, and so on. The lines on the charts represent how the parties’ House and Senate caucuses have voted, as I said, since 1879.

The Democrats as a whole are at about -.4 today. Interestingly, this is exactly what they were in 1879, so in a century and a half the party hasn’t budged. But OK, liberal and conservative meant different things then, and the parties have realigned since then. So let’s use a more recent and relevant time frame. Let’s try 1979 instead—the cusp of the Reagan revolution. That year the Democrats in the House were at about -.27. By 2011 they were at -.4; a definite shift to the left.

But now let’s look at House Republicans. In 1979 they were at roughly +.22 on the scale—they were, in other words, slightly less conservative than the Democrats were liberal. But 2011’s House Republicans? They’re at +.65. If you look at the graph, you see a very striking rise starting in about 1995 (hmmm ...). In other words, since 1979, House Democrats have become almost exactly 50 percent more liberal than they were. House Republicans are almost exactly three times, or 300 percent, more conservative than they were.

Roughly the same is true in the Senate, with the asterisk that the Republicans there are not quite as extreme as their House counterparts. Democrats in the upper chamber have moved from about -.28 to about -.39, while Republicans have shot from +.23 to +.48. Again, the Democrats have moved, but the Republicans have pole-vaulted. Combining both Houses, Poole told me, gives us the conclusion that the GOP has moved to the right three, maybe three and a half times as intensely as the Democrats have moved left.

Washington, especially Washington journalism, really needs to come to terms with this reality. The other day in Politico, John Harris and Jonathan Allen did a big piece on the death of bipartisan dealmaking. To their credit, they did quote Poole (far down in the story, but at least it was in there) as saying the Republicans are more to blame than the Democrats.

But these data need more than a passing mention. They need to sink deep into the collective consciousness of this town. We are operating in a total hall of mirrors. Not just a hall of mirrors—a hall of distorting funhouse mirrors. And what’s astonishing about it is the number of people who want to believe what they see in those mirrors, for the sake, I suppose, of being “balanced.”

Believe me, I’d gladly go back to a Washington where the Democrats were less liberal and where there was more ideological crossover between the parties, and where actual compromise was possible. The situation that obtained in the late ’70s would be a vast improvement over what we have today. But we’re not anywhere close to that, and the reason we’re not is that while one side has sidled away from the center, the other side has sprinted away from it. It’s a fact, but somehow the profession that is supposed to care first and foremost about facts is reluctant to embrace it.