Republicans Really Are More Extreme

America’s Republicans are more conservative than ever. And they don’t even know it.

It’s a familiar lament from Democrats: the Republicans have become so extreme, the claim, that it’s impossible to deal with them.

They may be right.

“Extremes on both sides”

James Fallows recently argued in The Atlantic that it’s time reporters stop pretending there are “extremes on both sides” and recognize that the Republican Party “is going through a push to the extreme unlike anything that is happening to today’s Democrats and unlike anything else that has happened in politics since at least the Goldwater era and probably since long before.”

Only now, a year after Eric Cantor was driven out of his House seat by a challenger not closer to the middle but further to the right; a month after John Boehner decided to leave one of the theoretically most-powerful jobs in American governance; when possible savior-successor Paul Ryan is being attacked as too liberal; and during a GOP presidential primary campaign whose “center” is further to the right than any in memory — only in these circumstances have reporters begun to talk directly about the Republican Party’s move toward the fringe.

Fallows may be a bit unfair to fellow political journalists who operate in a highly partisan environment where neutral observations about the Republican Party’s radicalization often invite accusations of bias.

He may also be underestimating the radicalization of the left.


This website has argued that it’s not just Republicans who have abandoned the center. The Pew Research Center found last year that more and more Americans identify exclusively with one of the two major parties and see the other not just as a political adversary but as a threat to the nation.

94 percent of Democrats are now to the left of the median Republican voter whereas 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat. Twenty years ago, the figures were 70 and 64 percent, respectively.

27 percent of Democrats see Republicans as a threat to American wellbeing. For Republicans, the figure is even higher. 36 percent believe Democrats are a danger.

Leftwingers who — rightly — complain about some of the anti-Barack Obama vitriol coming from the far right may want to recall some the things the far left said about his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.


But Fallows isn’t totally wrong either. Republicans, writes John Sides in The Washington Post, don’t seem to believe that there is any electoral penalty for being strongly conservative. Democrats, by contrast, do believe a strong liberal will be penalized.

The majority of Democrats knows that Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, couldn’t win a general election, however much they might like him.

Nearly one in two Republicans, on the other hand, believes Ted Cruz, the far-right senator from Texas, could win a presidential election.

Conservative self-deception

It gets even stranger. The Republican candidates perceived as most moderate — Jeb Bush and John Kasich — are also perceived by conservative activists as the least electable!

Part of the reason is that some conservatives have convinced themselves that they lost the last two presidential elections because they nominated candidates who weren’t sufficiently right-wing — a myth that is peddled by the likes of Cruz.

But even Cruz, despite being ranked as the most reactionary candidate in this year’s primary election by FiveThirtyEight, isn’t considered a hardliner by his supporters. Which goes to another part of the explanation for their extremism: these rightwingers don’t think they are extreme.

A YouGov survey conducted in June asked Americans to place themselves and the presidential candidates on an ideological scale from 0 (very liberal) to 100 (very conservative). Cruz scored 72, just above the Republican average of 71.

If Cruz indeed represents the “generic Republican” now, Fallows has a point: America’s conservative party really is drifting so far to the right that it threatens to become unelectable at the national level.