If you think the other side has been moving away from the middle, you’re right. No matter which side you’re on.
But you’re a little more right if you think that’s true about Democrats.
That’s the big takeaway from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, which takes a periodic look at partisanship on various issues. The survey shows how attitudes on 10 issues have changed among self-identified Republican and Democrat voters (not elected officials) since 1994:
The gap has been widening, but it’s chiefly because Democrats have moved further to the left during the past 23 years than Republicans have to the right. That is true of all of the issues shown above, except the one about environmental regulations.
Pew asked respondents to agree with one of two statements on each subject. One is phrased in a way that matches the stereotype of Republicans, and one of Democrats. (We could argue about the various phrasings, and whether they’re truly accurate, but the point here is that they’ve been asked the same way over this period of time, making comparisons over time more valid.) Above, you see how the responses compare for the stereotypical “GOP answer.”
You’ll notice something: On six of the 10 questions, Republicans’ responses moved by less than 10 percentage points; that was true on just one of 10 issues for Democrats. And on two of the issues where Republicans moved by more than 10 points, they moved away from the typical “GOP answer.”
On average, across all 10 issues, Republicans have changed by zero points.
So overall, Republicans essentially stand right where they did in 1994. Moderate moves toward the “GOP answer” on questions like government help for the poor and achieving peace through strength were totally offset by larger moves toward the “Democratic answer” on topics such as immigration and homosexuality. The latter two are especially interesting: Republicans in 2017 answered those questions in a more liberal way than Democrats in 1994 did, yet the left still portrays the GOP as an anti-immigrant, anti-gay party.
By contrast, Democrats as a group have moved only to the left, shifting away from the “GOP answer” on every count — by an average of 21 points. On three of the questions, more than half of Democrats in 1994 actually sided with the “GOP answer.” Now there’s only one issue on which the “GOP answer” garners more than a third of Democrats.
Pew didn’t provide a similarly compact graphic for the “Democratic answers,” but they can be found one by one throughout the report (except for the question about government waste and efficiency). Here’s a summary:
- Republicans moved away from the “Democratic answer” on six of nine issues, by an average of 5 points (with moves to the right again partially offset by moves to the left).
- Democrats moved toward the “Democratic answer” on every issue, by an average of 23 points.
For those of you who prefer a visual representation, here’s how Pew depicts the parties’ movement:
You’ll notice that, as recently as 2004, the median Democrat and the median Republican were pretty close to the middle, and to each other. Now they’re quite far apart. And as you can see by comparing the line for each party’s median to the edge of the graphic, the median Democrat is further to the left than the median Republican is to the right. Judging as well by the height of each group as they approach the edges, there are more Democrats at the far left side than there are Republicans at the far right side.
This appears to be a generational shift, meaning it probably isn’t changing dramatically anytime soon. It’s one reason expecting the legislative process to produce a durable, bipartisan answer on today’s thorniest issues — and Pew didn’t even ask about health care directly — is probably wishful thinking.
The answer, as I’ve suggested when it comes to health care, isn’t to try to force the prevailing party’s solution on everyone else — only for the other party to try to move sharply in the other direction when it comes to power. It’s to devolve as much of this decision-making as possible to lower levels of government, where the stakes aren’t as high and more political consensus exists. That’s why, to those who are truly interested in how we can possibly navigate such choppy political waters, I can’t recommend Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic” highly enough. The question going forward isn’t how we move back to the middle, but how we govern anyway.