Yes, Republicans are to blame for the polarization in Congress

Of course since I’m a Democrat I’d think this, right? But hear me out, there is very good evidence showing that Republicans have become radically conservative over the past few decades. Democrats, on the other hand, have remained a centrist party and in many ways also have gotten more conservative. Our current problems with political polarization are almost entirely to blame on a Republican Party that has marched steadily to the right for over three decades. Additionally, anyone who says “both sides have become extreme lately” is clearly wrong.

A new study by two political scientists provides a good visualization of this trend:

Starting roughly in 1976, Republicans started becoming an unprecedentedly conservative party. In good years the GOP becomes more conservative, in bad years it becomes more conservative, without fail. Contrast that to the Democratic Party, which was about the same distance from the political center in the mid 60s as they were in 2009-2011. (Unlike with Republicans, electoral victories tend to move Democrats closer to center, while those representatives left after electoral defeats lend to be more liberal)

This is a nice graph of this trend, but more importantly, here are concrete examples of this phenomenon.

Health Care

The health care plan passed by Democrats in 2010 was much more conservative than the one proposed by Clinton in the early 1990s or any of other earlier Democratic plans. In fact, Obama’s plan was first proposed by Republicans in response to Clinton’s plan and first enacted into law by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Today, Republicans say that same health care plan represents the death of liberty in America. Clearly on this issue, Republicans have moved to the right to oppose a plan they once favored and Democrats have moved right by passing a plan that Republicans once favored.

The Environment

You may remember that it was Republican Richard Nixon who first created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, it is the Republicans who are talking about repealing the EPA or putting coal and oil executives in charge of the agency. This is clearly a major rightward turn for the party.

In the debate over man-made climate change, Republicans have gone from proposing solutions to the problem to denying that it even exists. A cap-and-trade solution to limiting carbon emissions was (you guessed it) originally a Republican idea. The 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even went around the country advertising cap-and-trade as his solution to climate change. In 2009-2010 Democrats moved and adopted cap-and-trade instead of their old idea of a carbon tax. Predictably, Republicans now say cap-and-trade is the greatest job-destroyer in America. On this issue (again) both parties have moved right.

Taxes

It used to be, taxes were just the way we paid for the things we wanted government to do. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth over how taxes should be structured and over their levels sometimes, but no party has ever denounced taxes as a moral evil and as antithetical to American values the way the current Republican Party is. Every Republican president up until Bush Sr. raised taxes at some point in his Presidency (to my knowledge). Now to do so would be blasphemy.

Democrats have also moved to the right on the issue of taxes.  Democrats raised taxes under Clinton before Bush Jr. lowered them in 2001  and 2003. Now Democrats don’t even want to raise all of our taxes rates to the place they were under Clinton, they only want to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000/year. On this issue as well, both parties have moved far to the right. Republicans now see taxes as the devil and Democrats refuse to raise taxes on 98% of the population!

Immigration

In the 2000s, some Republicans favored compassionate and fair immigration reform. Now, you’d be hard pressed for a Republican spouting anything less than “round ’em all up,, shove  ’em in jail and post automatic machine guns to mow down anyone trying to cross the border.” Republicans are even against giving citizenship to children who were brought to the US as children have lived here almost their entire lives and agree to go to college or serve in the US military (a bill called the DREAM Act).

Under former President Bush, many Republicans favored an even looser version of the DREAM Act. This version would have only required prospective DREAMers to graduate high school and did not include many other provisions restricting access to this benefit. Democrats still favor the DREAM Act, but Republican support for it has all but disappeared.

Conclusion

Looking only at issues overlooks procedural ways the Republicans have increased polarization, such as how they now filibuster every small issue that gets brought up in the Senate, where before only major issues were seen as deserving of a filibuster.

As should be obvious, Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the past couple decades. I cannot think of any issue where  the Democrats have similarly moved to the left (except on gay rights, I suppose). As studies show and party rhetoric confirms, Republicans are mostly responsible for the polarization and dysfunction in our government today. The solution to these problems involves finding someway to change the Republican Party.

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