Democrats More Extreme Than Republicans

Republicans are much closer to America's political center than Democrats.

Paul Waldman points me to a recent Pew study titled “Voters Rate Political Parties’ Ideologies” and to this graphic in particular:

From the Pew write-up:

In broad terms, voters view the Democratic Party’s ideology as the opposite of the Republican Party’s: 58% say the Democratic Party is either very liberal or liberal while 56% say the GOP is either very conservative or conservative.

However, more voters view the Democratic Party as very liberal than see the Republican Party as very conservative (26% vs. 18%). As a result, the average rating for the Democratic Party’s ideology among all voters is somewhat farther to the left than the Republican Party’s is to the right. The Republican Party’s rating also is closer to voters’ average ratings of their own ideology, which is slightly to the right of center.

Waldman, a liberal who naturally views the Republicans as the more extreme of the two major parties, is having a hard time wrapping his head around this.

What’s really interesting here isn’t so much the views about Democrats — that’s pretty much what you’d expect, that voters of the opposing party would find it to be far more extreme than its own partisans, who know where their own party has disappointed them, would place it. What’s odd, though, is the fact that on average there’s so little difference between how Republicans and Democrats see the GOP. There’s obviously some diversity within those groups — some Democrats see the GOP as extreme, while others see it as moderate — but it’s still notable.

So why is this? It’s hard to say, but my nominee would be the differing media systems partisans are drawn to. Conservatives are more likely to seek out highly partisan information sources — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. — than Democrats are. The latter may take in the occasional episode of Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, but they’re getting most of their news from more neutral places like NPR and CNN. What makes the difference is that the idea that the Democratic Party is a bunch of socialists with a radical leftist agenda is a core component of the rhetoric on Fox, Limbaugh, et al. If you get your news from them, you’ll hear that message every day, again and again. And eventually you’ll start to believe it.

I don’t doubt that there’s some reinforcing mechanism from conservative media outlets, although my guess is that it’s minor.  First, as Waldman himself notes, the tendency dates back to at least 1985, well before the polarization of media.  Second, the chief reason for the rise of Limbaugh and Fox News was the sense that the national media was biased to the left.

The more obvious explanation is that the center is further to the right than Waldman thinks.   Indeed, Pew has another couple of graphics — similar to those we’ve seen dozens of times elsewhere over the years — that reinforces this point:

Nearly twice the percentage of respondents considered themselves conservative (40) as liberal (22).  And the next chart really drives the point home:

A solid majority(53%) of American registered voters sees the Democrats as more liberal than themselves and a strong plurality (41%) see the Republicans as more conservative.  But a whopping 27% see the Republicans as more liberal than themselves!

There’s some debate as to how people perceive the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and whether they mean the same thing to most people.  Regardless, Americans have aligned themselves with the term “conservative” at a much higher rate for decades.    And they think the Republican Party is also “conservative” while the Democratic Party is “liberal.”  So, if we’re defining “centrist” as the median ideology of America at any given moment in time, the Republicans are much closer to it than Democrats.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    There’s some debate as to how people perceive the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and whether they mean the same thing to most people. Regardless, Americans have aligned themselves with the term “conservative” at a much higher rate for decades.

    .

    “Well, you know, I’m pretty conservative, even teapartyish, in fact.”

    “Oh yeah? Hey, that’s interesting. Look, I’m going to the “Abolish Social Security and Medicare” rally, wanna come?”

    “Wait a minute…”

  2. Pete says:

    Grow up Sam. What’s your answer to the coming train wreck? More snark? Our entitlement system has to be reformed and it will be less costly and painful to get to it sooner rather than later. It might just take a third party with the maturity and courage to force the ill tasting liquid down our spoiled throats.

  3. Ben says:

    Sam’s right though. I think that people like to *THINK* that they’re conservative. Everyone likes to think they’re fiscally responsible, until you start talking about cutting their favorite entitlement. Then there’s a nationwide uproar. So, even if I were to believe the results of this poll really are representative of the country as a whole, one of these things must be true:

    1.) People really are willing and ready for their own favorite entitlement programs to be cut. If this is really true, my thoughts on this would “fantastic, let’s get out the scissors!!”. However, I doubt it.

    2.) The majority of people really are unaware of how much they themselves benefit from entitlement programs. This would not surprise me in the slightest.

    3.) There is some major cognitive dissonance going on here in the minds of the majority of people. They got theirs, and now they want to cut yours. This would also not surprise me in the slightest.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    Any discussion of whether people are more conservative or more liberal has to start with definitions of those terms. I’ve never, ever heard a reasonable definition, other than my own, of course 🙂

    Here’s mine:
    – You are conservative on an issue if you believe that keeping the status quo or returning to a previous (real or imagined) status quo is the best course.

    – You are liberal on an issue if you believe that fundamental change is required.

    Now, given those definitions, are you liberal or conservative?

  5. Franklin says:

    There are at least three major problems with the wording here.

    One is that the word ‘liberal’ has been equated with ‘radical’ for such a long time that very few people want to be called that word. The study might have been better if it used more relative terms: “left of center” or “right of center”.

    The second problem is that everybody defines the center (or the ‘moderate’ position) to be something different. I don’t know how a study would get around that problem.

    A third problem is that respondents are probably picking some subset of issues that they are concerned about the most; in other words, everybody is answering a different question. Knowing quite a few gay people, I tend to support their issues strongly and therefore think of myself as fairly liberal. But if I step back and think about my overall positions on other social issues, foreign and domestic policies, I look more like a very moderate conservative.

  6. James Joyner says:

    One is that the word ‘liberal’ has been equated with ‘radical’ for such a long time that very few people want to be called that word. The study might have been better if it used more relative terms: “left of center” or “right of center”.

    The second problem is that everybody defines the center (or the ‘moderate’ position) to be something different. I don’t know how a study would get around that problem.

    That’s what I was getting at in the last paragraph. But it doesn’t really matter. Americans define themselves as conservative or moderate — anything but liberal — and the Democrats as liberal. That ain’t good for Democrats.

    Now, obviously, we elect candidates, not parties. Obama easily beat McCain in 2008 and the Dems control both Houses of Congress. But the natural tendency is back towards the center.

  7. Herb says:

    “So, if we’re defining “centrist” as the median ideology of America at any given moment in time, the Republicans are much closer to it than Democrats.”

    I can’t argue with that, but I will say that the Republicans are doing a very poor job representing this “median ideology of America” and have been for some time. I expect the surveys to eventually catch up.

  8. James Joyner says:

    I will say that the Republicans are doing a very poor job representing this “median ideology of America” and have been for some time. I expect the surveys to eventually catch up.

    I think there’s a decent chance of that. The public is with the GOP on some issues where I’m not, but I think the ground is shifting faster than the Republican leadership is adapting.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s the mechanics of change that create these numbers, I think.

    Basically the liberals propose a change: civil rights, women’s rights, a social safety net, gay marriage.

    The conservatives oppose the proposed change and support the status quo. Naturally, the conservatives lose because all the liberals have really done is correctly identify a trend that makes sense — extending the reach of liberty, or softening the harsher edges of capitalism.

    The liberals get their way at which point their proposal becomes the status quo. That status quo is then by definition conservative. Just as conservatives now embrace social security, medicare, equal rights etc…

    People are risk-averse. Liberalism is risky because change and progress always are. Conservatism is risk-averse and only accepts the change that is shoved down their throats. That puts conservatives more in line temperamentally with more people.

    Look at it this way: there are a lot more middle managers than there are innovators. Always will be.

  10. wr says:

    James: You say “But the natural tendency is back towards the center.”

    That might be true, but the Republicans are fleeing the center like rabbits running from a wildfire. Or maybe they’ve just decided that there’s nothing radical about invoking secession, nullification and treason in the name of patriotism.

  11. DanBronx says:

    To the gentlemen who made the pejorative generalization that you’re a conservative if believe in keeping the status quo and a liberal if you believe in fundamental change:

    I believe every citizen should be free from the target of bolshevik rhetorics currently cultivated by this administration for simply wanting to keep more of their earnings. I believe that real rights do not come at the ‘status quo’ of bureaucratic appropriations, deficits and shattering debts. As such, I support gay rights and abortion rights. As opposed to a public union’s right to raise the property tax of a retiree on a fix-income under the guise of community entitlements. I believe in maintaining the Constitutional system of checks and balances which has served both Democrats and Republicans to date. I’m a Republican who voted for Obama because I bought into his ‘Centrist’ image. I’ll exercise better judgment next time.
    Where do I fit on this chart?

  12. Joe Blow says:

    “Fundamental Change” is highly over-rated. More and more people are beginning to realize that “fundamental change” is usually a code word for the expansion of the administrative state, the diminution of individual liberty, and the transfer of power from the people to unaccountable “experts.” You can keep the change.

  13. tom p says:

    ***There’s some debate as to how people perceive the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and whether they mean the same thing to most people. Regardless, Americans have aligned themselves with the term “conservative” at a much higher rate for decades. ***

    James, do they even know what it means???

    ****- You are conservative on an issue if you believe that keeping the status quo or returning to a previous (real or imagined) status quo is the best course.

    – You are liberal on an issue if you believe that fundamental change is required.****

    When it comes to SS and Medicare, your definitions get turned on their heads.

    The only thing conservatives think should remain the same are the current tax rates. But we have seen how they cut spending….

  14. tom p says:

    And by the by James, I consider the title of this post the “stupidest thing I have ever read on the internet”…

    When you have GOP’ers calling for open rebellion against the gov’t (2nd amendment remedies, anyone?) I have to wonder about the mental health of the author. You are still sane… aren’t you James?

    Consider for a moment: You are defining as conservative people who yell at town hall meetings, “Government, keep your hands off my medicare!”

    These people ain’t wound to tight.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Our entitlement system

    I find the definition of social security as an “entitlement” interesting. I mean, I have been paying in for 35 years & I think it’s reasonable to want to get that money back at some point. Guess I am just a Marxist freeloader…

  16. EJ says:

    part of this i think is also the stigma associated with the lables. “Liberal” has been a dirty word since the mid 80s. So you have a lot of marginal liberals who are relecutant to self describe themselves that way and call themselves moderate. ‘Conservative” is not a dirty word. So lots of people are willing to call themselves conservative.

    This is probably why the republican party is viewed similarly by every group. The dems are seen as “evil” liberals by people on the right. But people ont he left who are really marginal liberals, like to think of themselves as moderates and therefore see their party as moderate.