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Republican “Extremism”

Recent Pew data in combination with Moral Foundations Theory brings into question the ubiquitous liberal mantra that conservatives are “extreme,” for example in the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, and in this graph which Haidt has used in some of his talks to claim that the extremism in congress (1) lies mostly with the Republicans.  

An article in Town Hall, entitled Three Liberal Myths About Partisanship Busted by Pew’s New Poll, summarizes the Pew data as follows:

Myth #1: Polarization is asymmetric (i.e., more on the right than on the left)
Myth #2: Republicans have consistently gotten more extreme
Myth #3: Republican views are more monolithic than Democrats

From the Pew study here’s a bar graph of Democrat and Republican polarization in five-year increments over the past twenty years:

Pew Polarization Bar Graph 1994-2014

The Pew data makes five things clear.

First, the Democratic move to the left has been more extreme than the Republican move to the right in both absolute and relative terms.. The percentage of Democrats with political values that are mostly liberal increased from 30% to 56%, nearly doubling, for a relative increase of 87% ((56-30)/30=0.87). Over the same time period the percentage of Republicans with values that are mostly conservative increased from 45% to 53% for a relative increased of only 18% ((53-45)/45=0.18).  The percentage of Democrats who are consistently liberal increased from 5% to 23% for a relative increases 360%, ((23-5)/5)=3.6).  The percentage of Republicans who are consistently conservative increased from 13% to 20% for a relative increase of only 54%, ((20-13)/14=0.54).

Second, in 2014 Democrats are now more extreme than Republicans, by a small margin of 3% in both measures, with Democrats who hold political values that are mostly liberal measuring at 56% vs.  Republicans who hold  political values that are mostly conservative at 53%, and consistently liberal vs consistently conservative at 23% and 20% respectively.

Third, in data not shown in this bar chart but described in the Pew study, the changes among those who are politically engaged are even more pronounced. Democrats who are politically engaged and consistently liberal went from 8% to 38%, for a relative increase of 375%. Republicans who are politically engaged and consistently conservative increased from 13% to 23% for a relative increase of only 43%.

Here’s a graph from the study that shows what’s happened across the political spectrum by quintile:

Pew Data of Extremes

Fourth, as the above graph shows, in the past twenty years the percentage of Democrats at the extreme left quadrupled from 3% to 12%. The percentage of Republicans on the extreme right inched up by only 2 percentage points from 7% to 9%, for a relative increase of only 28%.

The Pew data goes back only as far as 1994, but I think a case might be made that these trends would continue.  My evidence for this is only anecdotal, but, for example, I submit that the conservatism described by Barry Goldwater in Conscience of a Conservative and by Ronald Reagan in his famous speech A Time For Choosing endorsing Goldwater is a lot closer to today’s conservatism than JFK was in that same era to today’s liberalism. JFK’s tax cuts to stimulate the economy would be thought of as practically evil these days.  

Fifth, the Pew data shows that Republicans moved significantly to the left when Bush was in office, and moved back to the right in the last ten years, ending up slightly to the right of where they started in 1994 (see first bar chart near the top of this post) while during the same period the Democrats moved sharply and steadily to the left, This GIF from Pew shows this nicely by animating that data:  


What’s going on?  Why is it that the ubiquitous meme among broadcast and print journalism, academia, Hollywood, and liberal politicians is that Republicans and conservatives are extremists when the data clearly shows its actually Democrats and liberals who have moved the farthest and whose numbers include the most extremists? I offered one possible explanation in this post.  Here’s another:

The Democrat view that Republicans are extremists is due in part to The Overton Window, summarized as follows by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy where the idea originated: 

Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This “window” of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them. Click here for a video explaining the Overton Window.

Democrats/liberals today are so much farther to left than they were twenty years ago that Republicans/conservatives who have not moved anywhere near as much to the right seem farther away. Given liberal dominance in mass media, and from the perspective of their far-left moral matrix Democrats/liberals think they are the ones who are normal/mainstream and are therefore left with practically no other conclusion but that Republicans/conservatives must have become “extreme.” 

I’d venture that a possible reason Republicans moved to the left while Bush was in office might be that they are more comfortable when one of their own is in the White House. They don’t feel they have to live their lives looking over their shoulder, wary of the next sacrilege/affront/violation to basic American moral foundations and associated freedoms/virtues/Constitutional tenets as is happening now with the current administration.  It’s probably not a stretch to say that the more leftist position of the Republicans when one of their own is in charge is a better indication of their natural position on the political spectrum than today when the flatly stated and partly implemented goal of the current administration is to “fundamental transform” America into just another democratic/socialist state like in Europe, thus causing Republicans to circle the wagons around conservatism’s/America’s sacred values and resulting in their move to the right. 

Speculating on the Republicans’ modest move to the right I’d offer that a lot of it is due to abuses of power by the Democrats.  By using chicanery to pass Obamacare over the objections of a population who mostly didn’t want it and still doesn’t (2) and thus expanding the reach and control of government even further into the very personal decisions of every-day Americans, and by openly flaunting the Constitutionally mandated separations of powers that the President took an oath to uphold (as of the day of this writing, June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court has decided unanimously, including his own two appointments Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, that President Obama exceeded his authority by basically writing new laws with his pen and his phone) the current administration and its cohorts in the Senate (and for a while in the House) are blatantly and egregiously violating the fairness and liberty foundations. They are precisely the sort of dominating bullies the liberty foundation was designed by natural selection to oppose, and which the Founders tried to prevent through the separation of powers in the Constitution. And it’s not just the foundations and the Constitution they’re violating, it’s also some of the basic American virtues associated with them; virtues which the Founders, some of whom as Haidt has said were great social psychologists (3), tried to codify into the Constitution.  (e.g., Negative liberty; self-sufficiency and personal responsibility; Following established rules (i.e., the rule of law))  Republicans are coming “together in solidarity to oppose or take down the oppressor,” for which Mann, Ornstein, Haidt, and many other liberals, who, according to the Pew data, have collectively moved much farther to the left than Republicans have moved to the right, are labeling them extreme

People don’t “circle the wagons” for no reason.  They’re pushed into it when they feel backed into a corner; when their sacred values are being violated.  The Tea Party didn’t just magically appear out of thin air because somebody said “Hey, let’s put on a show!” like in an old Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney movie.   The same goes for the supposed “extremism” of Republicans in Congress.  They were driven to it by the behavior of other people; by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama who have been trampling on conservative/American sacred values since they took power.  

The formation of the Tea Party and the supposed Republican “extremism” are perfect examples of the liberty/oppression foundation in action.  To quote the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”  If we replace “colonies” with “Republicans” and replace “alter” with “restore” then we’ve a pretty good summary of what’s happening today. In this sense today’s Tea Party is much the same as the one in 1773.

This offers a great teachable moment for Moral Foundations Theory, an opportunity to help build a bridge across the political divide, that Haidt could use in a non-partisan way.  For example, he could rewrite the lecture he gave at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education titled When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege using only the things the Obama administration has done as examples of how liberals commit sacrilege against conservative sacred values five different ways. Or, he could present it the way he presented his 2008 TED Talk, also in a non-partisan way:

And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right — and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out — check in with Seng-ts’an. Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out. And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.Think about the Dalai Lama. Think about the enormous moral authority of the Dalai Lama –and it comes from his moral humility.

But instead he burns the bridge. He squanders the opportunity to be a non-partisan referee as he was at TED and at CCARE and instead picks a relatively small data point out of the larger, more holistic context of the psychological dynamic that Moral Foundations Theory shows us is happening in the country, and he uses it to make the case that the Republicans in Congress are more extreme than the Democrats.

Republican “extremism” is a tired old liberal trope that’s been around for at least half a century.  It’s a term of demonization that was used by the Democratic Party against Goldwater in ‘64, Bush I (twice; in his senate race in Texas and in his Presidential run), Reagan in ’79, Bush II, and Romney.

The use of the term is a verbal bumper sticker or “dog whistle” that signals allegiance to the liberal team, as Haidt describes on page 100 of The Righteous Mind:

Political opinions function as “badges of social membership.”  They’re like the array of bumper stickers people put on their cars showing the political causes, universities, and sports teams they support. Our politics is groupish, not selfish.

The only perspective from which to interpret the rogue behavior of Reid, Pelosi, Obama, and the Democrats as “moderate,” and the Republican reaction to them as “extreme” is deep within the liberal moral matrix.  Moral foundations structure the space of our thinking (4), and a moral matrix is a closed epistemic system beyond which is becomes impossible to think.(5)   From that perspective it makes sense.  When half the moral foundations are external to one’s moral matrix practically the only conclusion that’s available in one’s attempt to understand people who think differently is that those people must have something psychologically, cognitively, or social wrong with them; they’re crazy, stupid, or “extreme” (or racist, homophobic, misogynistic, unfeeling, uncaring, mean, etc.)  

The liberal meme of Republican extremism is belied by the latest Pew data.  The data and the meme are explained by the larger context of the social dynamic that’s happening in the real of human interaction that Moral Foundations Theory helps us to better understand.  


(1) Haidt’s caveat that he’s criticizing only Republicans in congress and not conservatives or conservatism in general is an issue for me.  I am a great admirer of the science of Moral Foundations Theory; of the rigor Haidt usually musters to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it leads to conclusions that conflict with his own personal sensibilities; and of him as a person.  With Haidt I’m 90% praise and 10% criticism.  This is one of my criticisms.  

Haidt makes no secret of the fact that by personality he is “straight liberal.”  He claims that his work has forced him to see the light that there is wisdom in conservatism such that now he calls himself a centrist.  That’s great, and I believe him.  But it seems quite clear to me that his centrism is still very left of center and it shows in his work.  I think there’s a clearly leftist spin on some of the things he says. His caveat that his criticisms apply only to Republicans in congress is, to me, an example of that spin.   There are several reasons I see it this way.  First, to his great credit, one of the biggest messages that he tries to convey about his work is that conservatives and conservatism are not only not crazy, but in many ways actually quite wise, and more so than liberals.  Another of his messages is that Democrats and Republicans in congress are now ideologically pure.  All Democrats are liberal, and all Republicans are conservative.  Second, I think that the data he shows to support his claim is essentially cherry-picked out of the larger body of statistical evidence I summarize in this note.  His caveat strikes me as a bit like saying a charter bus driver is wrong for arriving at the destination his busload of passengers hired him to take them to.  Our representatives in Congress are, after all, hired to represent us.  Third, I think that even the larger body of data is only a reflection of a still larger dynamic that is occurring in the real world of social and political interaction.  Fourth, the lessons of his own Moral Foundations theory helps us to better understand how and why the larger dynamic works the way it does.  But in saying that Republicans are the extremists in Congress and letting Democrats off the hook ignores those very lessons.  These larger contexts and the insights his work gives us into the dynamic behind them are the subjects of this essay.      

And finally, I think his caveat is consistent with another clarification he’s made more than once in his work, which I think is another example of the liberal spin he sometimes put on it.  When he mentions the wisdom in conservatism and conservatives and the good that can come from it he sometimes also just can’t resist making it clear that he very much dislikes the Republican Party.  For example, this, from page 338 of The Righteous Mind, with emphasis added:

As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital. (Please note that I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party.)36

Why go there?  What’s the point of pointing that out?  And in Note 36 at the end of the book, referred to by the 36 at the end of the quote above, he goes even further, saying:

Right now I have less hope that the Republicans will change because they are so caught up in the binding (and blinding) passions of the Tea Partiers. Since zo09, and in particular in 2011, the Republicans have shown themselves to be less willing to compromise than the Democrats. And the issue they have sacralized is, unfortunately, taxes. Sacredness means no tradeoffs, and they are willing to sacrifice all the good things government can do to preserve low tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. This commitment exacerbates the rapidly growing income inequality that is poisonous to social trust, and therefore to moral capital (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

Again, why go there?  And more than that, I think this, too, ignores some of the lessons of his own work.  Does he really not see that Democrats are trampling conservative/American sacred values, which in turn is, I believe, the real reason for the Republican behaviors he’s criticizing?  What’s happening here, I suggest, is like what sometimes happens in a football game, where one player takes a cheap shot at a second player, the second player retaliates, and it’s the retaliation that the referee sees and for which he throws a penalty flag.

(2) Two copies of a graph from and article in the Huffington Post entitled Obamacare Polls Show Little Change Since Reform’s Passage.  The second copy is identical to the first except for the line superimposed on it showing the day before the law was passed.  The article is dated July 29, 2013 but apparently the poll data is continually updated because the most showing is for June 15, 2014.

Obamacare Favor-Oppose aggregated polls graph from Huffington Post

Obamacare Favor-Oppose aggragated polls graph from Huffington Post with line showing date of passage Picture1

(3) Excerpt from transcript of Haidt interview by Krista Tippett, at On Being.:

Dr. Haidt: And it felt to me as though there’s such an emotion. But there wasn’t a word for it, at least not in the psychological language. I mean, you can say uplifted or touched or moved, um, and I came across a wonderful passage in Thomas Jefferson. I’d just arrived at the University of Virginia. And he is the, you know, he’s every — he’s everywhere. I felt like I worked for the man. It was wonderful.


Dr. Haidt: Um, but he describes why it’s so important to read good fiction, because the effect that beautiful deeds beautifully explained can have on you. He said, “Does it not elevate his sentiments, does it not dilate the breast and elevate the sentiment, sort of a feeling of opening, um, as much as any example in real history can furnish and he talked about how it makes us more open. And then new things are possible.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. It seems like he almost had an intuition of what’s being learned in social psychology now.

Dr. Haidt: Jefferson’s a fantastic…

Ms. Tippett: Or that he had a wisdom — right.

Dr. Haidt: Yes, Jefferson and Ben Franklin. We had a few founders who, uh, were, uh, great psychologists.

(4) Jonathan Haidt, The Rationalist Delusion, around 17:30 into the video.

This structured space of reasoning is what Haidt calls a “moral matrix.”  In Krista Tippett’s interview of Haidt at On Being he explains it this way:

Dr. Haidt: That comes straight out of the movie The Matrix. The matrix is a consensual hallucination. And that’s kind of cool. And you know, the internet, and all that stuff. But, um, it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. Um, it is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself. And it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. Um, it’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix, so again…

Ms. Tippett: So it becomes impossible to think beyond.

Dr. Haidt: Exactly.

“Impossible to think beyond:” In other words, moral foundations define the limits and the extent of our ability to perceive, understand, reason about, and articulate the adaptive challenges and opportunities that constantly confront us in the social world. Moral foundations are not just taste buds of the moral mind as Haidt sometimes describes them, they’re actual cognitive capabilities. The more of them we employ, the wider and deeper is our cognitive space, and the socially aware and sensitive we are; the fewer of them we employ the more socially short sighted and small minded we become.


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