(This is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.com, the new online face of the Progressive Policy Institute, where I will be posting regularly.  Give 'em a look.)

To read the first part of this post, click here.

Defining the Center

Let’s examine Hacker and Pierson’s definition of “the center.” When they compare activists to independents, changes in the distance from independents may be due to growing extremism among activists. However, the distance may grow without activists changing their views at all if independents change their views. So saying Republican activists drifted further away from the center than Democratic activists may misstate what occurred; independents may simply have drifted toward Democratic activists over time without activists drifting anywhere. It’s also possible that Republican activists have grown more extreme, which has pushed independents closer to Democratic activists’ (unchanged) views.

Furthermore, secular changes in ideology over time can move people from the independent category into Democratic and Republican camps and vice versa, making it difficult to say whether the changes identified indicate that activists (or independents) are changing their views, or that it’s just flows into or out of the parties that is changing. If one of the parties looks more or less extreme, it could simply be that people who would have called themselves independent in the past are now identifying with one of the parties, making the leftover independents look somewhat more extreme in the opposite direction.

Rather than compare activists to independents, why not simply measure how far they are from the midpoint of the ideology scale? When one does so, one obtains the graph below.

By this measure, which avoids all of the problems with using independents as a reference point, the change in extremism among Democratic activists looks exactly the same as the trend for Republican activists. Once again, Republican activists look more extreme in any year, and this time (not shown) this remains the case when one looks at the unsmoothed data points.

A Better Way to Measure Ideology

There is also a problem with Hacker and Pierson’s measure of ideology. If we want to know whether party activists have become ideologically more extreme over time, we should use as pure a measure of ideology as possible. The measure Hacker and Pierson use, however, conflates ideology with tolerance and empathy because it is based on questions asking how warm or cold one feels toward liberals and conservatives. It could be that Democratic activists are simply more tolerant of their opponents than Republican activists rather than being more centrist. One can feel warmly toward a group without identifying oneself with it.

A better measure of changing ideology among party activists would be to look directly at changes in self-identified ideology. The NES asks respondents to place themselves on a 7-point scale ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Here, then, is a final chart showing trends for activists in each party, with ideology measured as the distance of activists from “4” – the midpoint of the seven-point scale. The actual data points are connected and the smoothed trends are shown as black dashed lines. It should be noted that this chart is based on even smaller sample sizes than Hacker and Pierson’s, so I show the margin of error for the data points as dashed vertical lines. I also omit off-year elections to make the chart less noisy.

This chart confirms that Republican activists more often than not have been more extreme than Democratic activists, though the two groups were statistically tied in 1972, 1976, 1992, and 2004. There is a clear trend toward greater extremism among Republican activists. Among Democratic activists, there was little consistency between 1972 and 1998, but they appear to have moved to the center in 2000 and 2002 before jumping up to the level of Republican extremism in 2004.

Finally, there is the claim by Hacker and Pierson that Democratic activists are more centrist than other Democrats. In my results, this was not true in 2004 whether one used the thermometer index or the self-identified seven-point ideology measure and was not true in 2002 unless one used the seven-point measure (which Hacker and Pierson did not). Regardless, none of the differences between the two groups – in my results or theirs – are statistically significant due to the small sample sizes.

In sum, Republican activists have generally been at least as extreme as Democratic activists and often more so, though not in 2004, which makes the Republican pattern seem less worrisome. Furthermore, while in 2002 it looked like Republican extremism had increased and Democrats had become more moderate, by 2004 Democrats had completely caught up to Republicans. Republican and Democratic activists were equally far from the center in 1972 and in 2004, so the shift was of the same magnitude for both. And there’s no reliable evidence that Democratic activists are more moderate than other Democrats.

The Bush administration and the Republican Congress may have used various tactics in order to pass an agenda that lacked strong support. But they were not “off center” if that phrase is taken to mean that their agenda was outside the bounds of what the public supported. Or more specifically, where Republicans succeeded, their agenda was not out of bounds. Hacker and Pierson downplayed the extent to which Republicans had to reach out to the center in what they did or did not favor. Education spending, for instance, 
increased more under Bush than under Clinton, in a nod to “compassionate conservatism.” Furthermore, where Republicans truly moved off center, they failed, as with Social Security privatization. And of course, 2006 and 2008 happened.

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