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Sorry, But The Republican Party Isn’t ‘Extremist’

tax reform

In Slate, Jamelle Bouie asserts that the “Republican Party in 2017 isn’t an ordinary political party. It is an ideological outlier, the most extreme party coalition since the Civil War.”

If this depiction sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been hearing iterations of it from the moment you started following politics — and it doesn’t matter how long ago you started. This Congress, this president, this Republican, is always the most extreme America has ever seen. If this were always true, we’d be living in the America of Meryl Streep’s fertile imagination.

It’s probably safe to assume that most contemporary liberals view conservatives in similar terms (although weren’t Republicans the good guys during the Civil War?). Then again, for liberals, extremism resides mere millimeters to the right of their own position, which has rapidly shifted left over the past 15 years.

An extremist “is a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.” An outlier is a thing “situated away or detached from the main body or system.” Though they may be hopelessly burrowed on the wrong side of history, these definitions do not fit contemporary Republicans.

For one thing, the GOP has fundamentally offered the same ideas for the past six congresses, at least. So, by definition, this one isn’t an outlier. Although some of the specifics might change, the ideological consensus of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congress — on both economic and social issues — are comparable with John Boehner’s Congress, and for that matter with Newt Gingrich’s Congress.

On the other hand, Barack Obama is arguably the most ideologically left-wing president in history. Who knows what the agenda would have looked like if he’d had benefitted from a Democratic Party majority for eight years. His major legislative achievement, a massive, federally run health-care law, was only tempered by the presence of Blue Dog Democrats – now an extinct tribe.

Republicans have been wildly successful winning elections recently — more than 1,000-plus seats in state and national races since Obama took office — arguing exactly what Bouie claims is fanaticism. These policies might not be popular at the Golden Globes Awards, but they are by definition mainstream.

Moreover, as Bouie sort of intimates, Donald Trump — hardly an ideological conservative — is, in some ways, likely to be a restraining force on the party’s reformist instincts. After all, one of the first agenda items Republicans will likely take up is Keynesian-style infrastructure plan. Hardly the work of Ayn Rand disciples.

This fact doesn’t stop Bouie from making the strange claim that Republicans are now “occupying an ideological space of strict libertarian conservatism.” I’m not exactly sure how “libertarian conservatism” is defined in the liberal glossary. Maybe it applies to anyone uninterested in endless government growth.

As far as I can tell, a lot of these congressmen are pushing traditional market-based ideas and tax cuts that aren’t always popular, but fall well within the parameters of American political discourse. The GOP wants to overturn an unpopular law that wasn’t even functioning before 2011. Some of us wish Republicans would be radical and truly reform Medicaid and create private options in Medicare and Social Security. Certainly, doing so would be no more “extreme” than reforming the entire health-care system with a slew of coercive and unprecedented mandates.

Now, whenever you need a Republican to back up the GOP-is-radicalizing theory, you’ll hear the name of Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein is the type of conservative who happens not to believe in any of the ideas associated with actual conservatism*, which all fine and well, until people start pretending he doesn’t have an agenda. Which is often.

Ornstein lays all the blame for DC’s gridlock on the reactionaries in the GOP. In this (in)famous graph proving his theory, Ornstein uses DW-NOMINATE, a scaling method to ideologically rank every member of Congress. Needless to say, it’s complicated. But as Sean Trende helpfully pointed out a few years ago, the scores “don’t really tell you how conservative or liberal a member of Congress is, at least not in the sense that most pundits use the term. It tells you how conservative or liberal a member of Congress is relative to other members of Congress.”

So think of it this way: there are Democrats who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, and for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, like Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who would never vote for those same bills today because no Democrat would. So Ornstein’s study tells us little about the long-term ideological trends of Congress, much less long-term, ideological shift within a party.

What is evident is that Obama’s positions — and now the positions of his party — would have been politically untenable in 1990 or even 2000. There is no way Keith Ellison, a former Nation of Islam member and hard-left economic liberal, would even be in running for the head of the DNC. There would be no way that a socialist Bernie Sanders would have captured 40 percent of the Democratic Party’s primary voters, much less find praise from everyone in his party at the convention. Yet today polls consistently find majorities that of Democrats have positive views of socialism. If this is not a “radical shift to the left,” I’m not sure what is.

The GOP base has embraced constitutionalism and nationalism, both outlooks well within American political tradition. Since the Tea Party erupted on the heels of the liberal shift in 2008 (and in a reaction to George W. Bush), there are certainly more conservatives in Congress, which means the positions have become more mainstream. Gridlock might simply reflect a widening of cultural, ideological, and regional differences, rather than the rise of especially obstinate Republican extremists.

When you treat politics as the wellspring of morality, watching your reforms being overturned is a pretty grim sight, I imagine. So it’s understandable that you would want to both normalize your own position and label the opposition out touch and beyond the mainstream. But this political tactic hasn’t been working out that well for Democrats, because it’s simply not true.