Americans now view both political parties as equally extreme

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A poll released Friday by CNN indicates that Americans generally view the two major political parties as equally extreme in their views and policies. It’s an interesting finding in the context of the recent debate over partisan extremism, sparked by Elon Musk’s meme on the subject – but also interesting for the question it raises about the inherent subjectivity of ‘the extreme’. .

If extreme becomes normal, is it still extreme?

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Since 2000, CNN and its polling partners (most recently SSRS) have occasionally asked Americans to rate how dominant or extreme one or the other party is. If we choose the last time the question was asked in the years for which data is available, the pattern looks like this.

Notice two things. The first is that the trend of perceived extremism for the Democratic Party has been generally on the rise (after the retraction of the jump just before the 2010 midterm elections). For the Republican Party, there was a big surge between 2010 and 2012 that peaked just after the government shutdown in 2013. Since then, the percentage of people saying the Republican Party is too extreme has dropped.

Again, we’re only looking at sporadic polls, which makes it a bit more difficult to describe what’s going on. But that seems to reflect how parties are perceived in general. That the Democrats were seen as more extreme just before the 2010 election in which they were eliminated, and the GOP was seen as more extreme immediately after the 2012 election (a loss attributed at the time to the party’s failure to moderate) then after stopping looks remarkable.

But also consider how opinions have changed since October 2013, when 56% of respondents said the Republican Party was too extreme. Since then, opinions on GOP extremism have plummeted among all partisan groups, including Republicans. Opinions on Democratic extremism have increased – with Republicans seeing an 11-point increase in their likelihood of describing Democrats as too extreme.

At the time of the Musk meme debate, I watched how people identify their own ideologies. It’s an imperfect measure of “extremism,” certainly, given that it, too, is subjective. What this analysis showed is that Democrats in 2021 were more likely to identify themselves as liberals than they were in 2012. Republicans were also more likely to identify themselves as conservatives, although they were less moved to the right than Democrats to the left.

(The years 2008 and 2012 are highlighted because they were the focus of Musk’s meme.)

But there’s one hard-to-avoid factor that likely contributes to it: Republicans were already farther from the center.

Again, “too extreme” has no objective measure. It is an individual assessment of how something compares to what is expected. In the example of these polls, it is “the mainstream”.

Consider how the GOP has changed since 2013, though. He ousted one of his House leadership team, largely because he feared he was soft on immigration. (The party’s stance on immigration, you may recall, was one of the outspoken stances to which its 2012 presidential loss was attributed.) It elevated Donald Trump to party nominee thanks in part to to his extreme rhetoric on immigration but, more broadly, to his embrace of far-right supporters of the party. This was the path to victory charted by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (perhaps the central figure in the 2013 shutdown) in the 2016 cycle: shifting to the right to energize right-wing voters disgruntled and trust more moderate voters. The Republicans would stay. Most have.

Then there was the Trump administration and its fallout, culminating in the widely embraced effort to deny the 2020 election results. Not to mention another longer shutdown driven entirely by Trump’s desire to force Congress to fund a border wall.

Is it a less extreme party in its positions than it was in 2013? Or has the GOP’s current approach to policy, frozen in the tea party era, simply become the mainstream of the party?

Again, it’s true that the Democratic Party has also shifted towards a pole in recent years, as the chart above shows clearly and, certainly, anecdotally. Americans seem to think it overlaps with the party being more extreme now than it was in 2013. But is it correct that the Democratic Party’s shift to extreme partisanship came as the GOP moved a way on the other extreme?

Or is the GOP showing what is expected of the GOP more than the Democratic Party is showing what is expected of it?

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