Friday, December 28, 2012

Let's Get This Congressional 'Moderates' and 'Extremists' Stuff Straight

I'm increasingly hearing that there are no moderates left in in Congress as both parties are now made up of extremists.  I'm going to refute that line of reasoning here, by arguing that basically the country has moved way far to the right.  Identifying extreme liberals in Congress is a joke.  There are none.  By 1960's and 1970's political benchmark, this nation is, except on race, gay rights, and marijuana, far, far to the right. 

My example of media 'extremism'  here is a short CBS clip titled "Moderate Senators Disappear." 

Watch the short video and see if you come up with the same questions I had.

Now let's reflect on what was said.  More important, on what was not said. 

The guts of the message are these four diagrams (screen shots from the video) purporting to show the Senate's liberals, moderates, and conservatives. The text next to the images comes from the US Senate website.
Screenshot from CBS YouTube

97th Congress (1981-1983)
Majority Party: Republican (53 seats)
Minority Party: Democrat (46 seats)
Other Parties: 1 Independent
Total Seats: 100 [from US Senate]
[The Senate had just changed to Republican dominance after Reagan swept into office in the 1980 election.]


Screenshot from CBS YouTube
103rd Congress (1993-1995)
Majority Party: Democrat (57 seats)
Minority Party: Republican (43 seats)
Other Parties: 0
Total Seats: 100
Note: Party division changed to 56 Democrats and 44 Republicans after the June 5, 1993 election of Kay B. Hutchison (R-TX).

Screenshot from CBS YouTube

107th Congress (2001-2003)
Majority Party (Jan 3-20, 2001): Democrat (50 seats)
Minority Party: Republican (50 seats)
Other Parties: 0
Total Seats: 100

Screenshot from CBS YouTube

 111th Congress (2009-2011)
Majority Party: Democrat (57 seats)
Minority Party:  Republican (41 seats)
Other Parties: 1 Independent; 1 Independent Democrat
Total Seats: 100
Note: Senator Arlen Specter was reelected in 2004 as a  Republican, and became a Democrat on April 30, 2009. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was reelected in 2006 as an independent candidate, and became an Independent Democrat. Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont was elected in 2006 as an Independent.

  1.  How do you define moderate?
    1. NJ does it by counting a set of votes on key bills important to each party.
  2.  If you aren't moderate, does that imply you are an extremist?
    1. NJ gives each Senator a percentage  on how they voted on the key votes.  Most fell somewhere between 98% consistent on key votes to around 50% consistent on key votes
    2. But CBS has converted those outside the middle as "most liberal" or "most conservative" and by 2010 everyone is in the 'most' category.  (NJ can identify more precisely - such as the ten most liberal or conservative Senators.)
    3. The implication left is that if you aren't moderate, you are, I guess, extreme.
  3. Do those votes NJ picked even accurately measure extreme and moderate?

Well, the original definition in the National Journal article was those who fit in between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican.  Back then, the Democratic party still had leftovers from the South who were very conservative on a number of issues.  There were also 'Rockefeller Republicans" who were very liberal on many issues.  So there was a lot of room.  But if you look at the 1982 picture, you'll see that the 'extremists' were mostly Republicans - 30 Republicans were considered extreme (to the right of the most conservative Democrat) and only 10 Democrats that were extreme (to the left of the most liberal Republican.)

Those numbers keep moving up so the middle eventually disappears.  In all four of the CBS diagrams, there are more red extremists than blue ones.   And I'm not sure where CBS got their numbers for 2010, because there are more conservatives than there were Republicans in the Senate.  They have 55 most conservatives and 45 most liberals.  But that year there were 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and 2 Independents who hung with the Democrats.  Are they counting Democrats among the most conservatives?

Game theory - particularly the prisoner's dilemma - tells us why you need to stand firm if your opponent keeps screwing you over.  If Democrats hadn't gotten more 'backbone' and hadn't voted for or against key legislation in reaction to what the Republicans were doing, they would have sold the whole country out by now.  And many liberals already say they have. 

But the CBS clip appears to have already changed the terms from the National Journal article. 

I found what appears to be the chart they worked from.  We're focusing on the lower one - the Senate - in this post.

First, this chart doesn't call them the Senators outside the moderate category "most".  It just identifies a group that is in the middle. 

But I would argue that on almost all important issues, the Republicans moved further and further to the right.  I would ask,  if the Republicans moved way to the right,  and the Democrats didn't move, does that mean the Democrats have become more extreme?  But the truth is the Democrats moved to the right as well.  On almost every major issue, the Congress has moved to the right:
  • Environmental issues - The EPA and Clean Water Act were Nixon era creations.  (So was Affirmative Action.) [Conservatives will say that there are more environmental regs now than then.  But I would respond that the environment was a bi-partisan issue then and it isn't now.]
  • Abortion - Abortion rights have gotten weaker and weaker every decade
  • Taxes - We have now have the lowest income taxes since the 1950s.
  • Deregulation - Environmental laws, oversight of banking, you name it and businesses have had less regulation over the years these stats were kept.  Trade barriers have come down - now everything can move freely across borders except for workers.
  • Guns - Restrictions on gun ownership have gotten looser and looser.
  • War and Defense - we have been at war for longer than any other period in our history.
  • Health Care - this was a Heritage Foundation proposal, adopted by Gov Romney in Massachusetts and only because evil to conservatives when Obama latched on to it.
Basically things have moved steadily more business friendly and more worker rights and consumer hostile.

There are only two areas that have significantly moved in what could be called a more liberal direction:
Marijuana laws - but at the state level, not the federal level
Gay rights - again, mostly at the state level, but a little at the national level

When we talk about extreme legislators, I think there are two ways to consider this:
1.  Extreme in their views - such as people who believe that legitimate rape doesn't result in pregnancy, or that every school should have armed guards (though the 'at federal expense' would be something conservatives would say is liberal, even though a conservative proposed it.)

2.  Extreme in their tactics - stonewalling every vote, filibustering huge numbers of  presidential nominee,  and playing chicken with the economy are all things that the Republicans have done consistently in the last decades.

When there is talk about losing moderates, we need to be straight about this.  The Republicans have pulled this country so far to the right that Nixon would appear to be an extreme liberal today.  Most Democrats in Congress would be considered conservatives by the 1960 and 1970 benchmarks.  What commentators are calling 'extreme liberals' today would have been considered moderate to conservative back then.  The standards of liberal and conservative have been shifted far to the right.

The only liberals I see these days are out in the streets, because there is no room for them in national elective politics.  Or at least there hasn't been lately.  I have mentioned gay rights.  Rather than say we've moved left on this issue, I'd say we've moved toward the American ideal of equality, helped by science and by education on why people are gay and what it means.  We've stopped demonizing gays and forcing them to hide their sexuality. 

The National Journal issue that has all the stats about the loss of Congress' moderates seems,  deep in the article, to agree with my assessment.
Mann and Ornstein have spent, between them, almost a century studying Congress. They thought long and hard before concluding, in their new book, that the Capitol is in the grip of an “asymmetric polarization”—that the Republicans have moved further right, in greater unity, than the Democrats have shifted toward the left.
Though, again, I would argue that except for gay rights, and to a lesser extent marijuana, the Democrats have moved to the right as well. Not to the left.  They go on:
The tea party’s advent helped make it so, pushing GOP members of Congress in a “right-wing thrust” that is “as extreme as we have seen,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and the author, with colleague Vanessa Williamson, of a new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.
Poole agrees. As does Bell. “I agree with the Left,” Bell says. “Social conservativism is keeping polarization alive. And it is keeping the Left from succeeding.”
“Republicans are the insurgent outliers,” Mann says. “They are ideologically extreme and opposed to compromise on principle.” Some tea party members “are prepared to take everything down, like kamikazes,” he says. “It’s the goddamndest thing.” [From National Journal]

Yet, the CBS piece gives us pictures that identify Democrats as not at all moderate, as now all 'most liberal,' with the implication of extreme, even though the very article they cite from the National Journal doesn't come to that conclusion.

So, when people talk about the lack of moderates, be sure to remind them that the Democrats have moderated themselves way to the right and to call them extreme liberals is a joke. 

A Note On How They Determined Who Was Liberal And Who Republican?

And to give you an idea what makes someone an extreme Democrat, here are  a couple of the votes they counted to determine liberals and conservatives:
Provide for reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration programs. Sept. 15. (62-37) L-3
Reduce funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to fiscal 2008 levels. Sept. 15. (36-61) L-3

When did funding the FAA become an extreme liberal position?
When did voting against cutting the FAA budget back to 2008 fiscal levels become an extreme liberal position?

When someone thinks labor unions should be forbidden - that's an extreme position.
When someone thinks we should nationalize oil companies - that's an extreme position.

But when someone wants to fund the agency that maintains air safety, that's hardly an extreme position.  

[I may need to come back and make some cosmetic changes in this, but I think I need to get it up so I can move on to other things.]


  1. National Journal is yet another rightwing publication, hardly unbiased.

    The problem is that the voters in this country are actually far to the left of the Senate and the House, but attack ads during primaries and Repugican gerrymandering of districts, along with huge incumbent campaign funds pumped up with corporate "donations" have eliminated most progressive candidates, except for Bernie Sanders and (once again) Alan Grayson.

    We need about another 25 Paul Wellstones or Bernies to bring some balance back to the senate and stop the Repuke filibustering and gridlock.


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