By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday April 3, 2012 01:06 PM

I was reproached lately on one of my mail lists:

I know everyone says the Dems have essentially tailed the Reps in the rightward move, but in fact the partisan divide in Congress now is far greater than it was 30 or 40 years ago, a fact that people like you never bother to address.
One often hears this kind of thing, couched in terms like 'polarization' and 'partisanship'. Now since I personally am most impressed by the extent of complete agreement between the two 'parties', this talk confuses me, and I said so.

Doug Henwood obligingly provided some links(*) to research on the subject. As I rather suspected, the research shows something a bit different from what you'd expect.

The exact procedure is not quite clear to me, but it looks like they did something like this:

1) For every roll-call vote (which of course excludes the votes by acclamation that frequently determine the outcome), the researchers decided whether a Yea or a Nay on that particular vote was more 'liberal' or 'conservative'.

2) They then accumulated scores on individual 'legislators' in Congress, these scores being essentially a ratio of the times each individual Solon cast the 'liberal' vote over the times s/he cast the 'conservative' vote. Perhaps the individual votes were weighted somehow, but just how does not clearly appear, after an afternoon's reading.

3) Do a time series by party. Voila, it turns out that party-line voting is becoming more common -- a dire state of affairs which the authors ominously refer to as 'parliamentary'. What this means is that you're seeing fewer and fewer Democrats whose lifetime average falls farther 'conservative' than the most 'liberal' Republican, and contrariwise.

5) None of this has any bearing on the question of whether the parties are closer together or farther apart in a substantive way, or whether the 'center' has moved to the right or to the left -- much less how. It simply tells us whether the parties have dissimilated more or less; whether the region of overlap -- of average voting records, NB, not individual votes -- has expanded or shrunk.

What the research shows is simply that if you add up the the votes, rated on a liberal/conservative scale, then even a Blue Dog has a lower lifetime right-wing batting average than the most liberal Republican.

Non-overlap on cumulative voting records doesn't seem like a very informative proxy for anything, except perhaps the character of the party system ('parliamentary' or otherwise).

And it doesn't say anything at all about the actual effective difference between the parties, nor about how 'policy' is actually made. Right-wing Democrats can dependably bolt across the aisle on every vote of consequence and still have lifetime averages that lie slightly to the 'liberal' side. And both parties can be moving steadily rightward the whole time, an effect which is of course normalized out by the method chosen.

'Polarization' seems a misleading word for this, though. It suggests that the parties are off on opposite trajectories, approaching the respective 'poles' of -- what? New Deal liberalism on the one hand, and Falangism on the other?

Whereas the reality is, I would say, that both parties are moving right, and drawing closer to each other if anything; certainly not farther apart. Those movements are quite consistent with the one-dimensional sorting-out and stratification and increasingly coherent 'branding' of the two gangs, noticed in this research.

You know the old joke about the unfortunate statistician? He drowned in a creek that was six inches deep -- on average.


(*) To wit:


Comments (16)


The center here is wealth weighted corporate druthers

Corporate preferred public policy
Domestic wise
has move from neutral 51 to maybe 72
To right shift 73 to 2008

The center has moved with the swing

The center aisle party represents corporate America
It draws from the inner sides of both brand parties
The outer side of the two brand parties have a different mission
then making

The two outsides are missioned quite clearly
Prevent the emergence of sustainable outside parties

One might ask what is behind the polarization gibberish
and the center party fantasy talk

That is merely to cover the present absolutely keen "do nothing " corporate dictated mission
For the center aisle ie each party core

It has an added benefit

Calling for a center party
Popular credulity about a vital center to America

A vital center sheep party that is nicely
disguising the corporate wolf
As the wolf has loped right

Dick Nixon
said fuck
In the oval office


There's little point in comparing votes on the Hill. If you want proof of a convergence of the two parties, look at the issues that never see the light of day in the halls of power. The rest is just a side show.

Overlapping less but not farther apart? I mean, if we must reduce politics to one axis and then quantify, there are different ways to calculate "distance." One way would be to average the numbers for politicians of each party and then take the difference. Another way would take the minimum distance between two members of different parties, which is what I was thinking of. In the second interpretation, if there is overlap on the axis, the two masses have no distance, just as it wouldn't make sense to say Canada is a positive geographic distance from the US (though Kansas is certainly distant from the Northwest Territories). In that sense, the evaporation of an overlap would change the distance from zero to positive. In this sense I think overlaps make things "closer."

The whole thing where the earth was going to stop turning and yet the Republicans refused to pass the budget thing is perhaps the kind of "failure of bipartisanship" people are thinking of.

I don't have a strong opinion on polarization, I just hate both of them. They just seem close to me, as two objects can become indistinguishable in the far distance, but if I were in between (in this space we are assured exists because there is no longer an overlap), I assume they would seem much further away from one another. If I were a Republican or a Democrat, no doubt, they would seem to be opposites, mutually contradictory and repelling, the only two existing political ideologies.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics


"Whereas the reality is, I would say, that both parties are moving right, and drawing closer to each other if anything; certainly not farther apart."

On economic policy issues I'm amazed that anyone would even attempt to dispute this. Building and strengthening our "plutonomy" was only possible with bipartisan cooperation.

The dissenters are always D's , but they're outgunned. The recent bipartisan agreement on the JOBS ( Jumpstart Our Bucket Shops ) ACT is a perfect example. Passed 380-41 in the House :


In the Senate , Durbin objected , saying : "“We will rue the day that we rammed this through the House and Senate,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the bill, adding that it rolls back stock disclosure requirements and holds the seeds of future fraud."


He made a similar claim about the rollback of Glass-Steagel , IIRC , saying it would come back to bite us in 10 years.

Pretty good call , that was.


Henwood's political scientists don't have much depth. But on the surface they could be right. Most of the so-called bifurcation can be explained by the demise of the Dixiecrats and the Rockefeller Republicans. And of course the entire spectrum has been moving considerably to the right since the 1970's.


gluelicker, the researchers Doug pointed me to ended up saying just about the same thing, in almost those words. Not exactly a stop-the-presses item, but it's always fun to watch the numbers dance.

Orville Douglas:

The dissenters are always D's , but they're outgunned.

"Those damned Evil Rethuglicans strong-armed our noble Donkey Dissenters ONCE AGAIN!!!!!!"

Yes, it's really about D vs R. really. truly.

Orville Douglas:

And of course the entire spectrum has been moving considerably to the right since the 1970's.

You're about 200 years too late there, gluelicker.

Overlapping less but not farther apart?
Yeah, quite possible. Imagine a room like the one in Pit and the Pendulum, where the walls are constantly closing in and the room is getting smaller. Initially the room is full of a mixed population of Crips and Bloods, who circulate fairly freely. There are Crips standing to the east of bloods, and vice versa, and same for north and south. But as the room becomes smaller all the Crips congregate in the northeast corner and the Bloods in the southwest. Overall the population is generally closer together -- since there's less room -- but there's also less overlap.

Of course the room is also on a supersonic airliner headed to the right; the dimension of motion is abstracted out, along with the size of the room, by the fact that you're just interested in who's closer to whom on the increasingly exiguous pavement surrounding the Pit.

PeterC nails it. And, grading votes on an either-or scale kind of gives away the ruse, dudn't it?


By the way, the numbers also do *not* mean that a Crip never stands for a while southeast of a Blood, or contrariwise. The numbers are averages. Any given Crip's average position is going to be northwest of a Blood's, but their position at any given moment may be the opposite.


"There's little point in comparing votes on the Hill. If you want proof of a convergence of the two parties, look at the issues that never see the light of day in the halls of power. The rest is just a side show."

There's the whole ballgame right there.

I'll entertain this polarization business much more seriously when I see coming to the floor for a vote: single payer, full employment, restoration of welfare, resolution to withdraw immediately from Afghanistan, significant wealth redistribution, workers rights.....


Anybody to the left of Hitler would tend to have a more liberal voting record than a full-blown Nazi. Did we need a study to confirm this? Sure, the Dems can be reliably predicted to vote "liberal" on a handful of issues, some of which are of great concern to some segments of the public, like abortion, but most of which aren't of any great importance to the ruling elite.

Violence Against Women Act? Sure, they are always happy to find ways to give more prison time to offenders while couching it in concern for women. Gun control? That's an interesting one. While the ruling elite would surely like to disarm the peasants, the Dems seem more enthusiastic about this than the Repugnicans. Perhaps the Right wishes to hedge its bets, just in case fascism doesn't work out while the Dems are comfortable throwing the dice? Never could understand the dichotomy on this one.

Regardless of the minority of issues the Dems are willing to vote "liberal" on, most of them make Barry Goldwater look like a tie-dyed, peacenik Hippie freak. To say they drifted to the Right is as much an understatement as to say the Titanic drifted a little too close to that iceberg.


I only quibble with the idea that the donkeys have "moved" to the right. This
Implies agency. They've been passive participants in the process of corporate power "moving" things toward their interests since the 70s. The only thing the donkeys do actively is to shake the same money trees as do the elephants, and create limits to legislation that don't venture beyond the 45 yard lines. Other than that, they are passive supplicants. But then SMBIVAns know that.


I often engage in irrational fantasies. As in "Alice's Restaurant".......if 50 people do it, its a movement!
How to get elected to public office:
Legally change your name to "None of the Above"

You might get beat, but you might also win in a landslide. At the very worst, you get "None of the Above" on the ballot and once THAT happens the vote, and the results, become exciting and unpredictable.

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