Are Democrats changing too quickly—or just catching up with Republicans?

Do new faces in Washington mean a new Democratic party?
Do new faces in Washington mean a new Democratic party?
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Is the Democratic party in the midst of a dramatic ideological shift, or is the US just shocked to be talking about big ideas again? By at least one social-science metric, it’s more about a changing conversation than a changing party.

The Democratic victories in the 2018 election swept in a new House majority and set the stage for the party’s internal competition to choose a 2020 presidential nominee. The rising voices of progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in combination with big ideas such as a Green New Deal and Medicare for All have reignited a long-running debate between the party’s business-friendly wing and those more eager for government intervention in the economy.

Some political observers fear that moving too quickly toward comprehensive solutions to social problems may squander Democrats’ chances with a 2020 electorate that is decidedly tired of Donald Trump’s presidency but perhaps not prepared for the party’s most ambitious platform since the days of Lyndon Johnson.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, running toward her view of the center as she seeks the nomination, summed up her attitude with a comment on rival Bernie Sanders’ plan for free four-year college: “If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would.”

Other Democrats argue that the party already tried to beat Trump with a poll-tested centrist in Hillary Clinton, and any Democrat running can expect to be tarred as a socialist by the Republicans regardless of their policies. They say it’s more important for Democrats to offer programmatic solutions that give voters a reason to choose them over the alternative.

Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has offered the most in-depth policy plan of any nominee, argues that “we can’t afford to just tinker around the edges — a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change.”

Warren’s rhetoric reflects a shift in the Democrats’ theory of how to enact legislation in a partisan environment rather than a dramatic shift in the party’s stated goals. And the data suggests that Republicans got there first.

One way to measure political behavior

It can be hard to put your finger on what any politician actually stands for. One way to quantify things is to use a tool developed by political scientists called DW Nominate. It’s a mathematical model that is fed data about how lawmakers in a given assembly vote on different issues. By examining how the same lawmakers vote on different issues over the session, it creates a kind of map comparing legislators to each other, not a subjective reference point. Unsurprisingly, individual voting patterns quickly cohere into a map of party affiliation.

The main dimension of the scale is typically interpreted as representing a lawmaker’s view of government intervention in the economy, with 1 being the most conservative position, -1 the most liberal, and a score of zero a kind of centrist Valhalla for the No Labels crowd. For example, in the previous Congress from 2017 through 2018, Warren was the most liberal senator with a score of -.75, while Klobuchar, scoring at -.24, was among the more conservative Democrats, as close to the most liberal Republicans as she is to Warren. This chart shows the Democratic presidential contenders who served in the previous Senate, compared to the most liberal Republican, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and the most conservative Republican.

This approach is obviously reductive, and critics of DW Nominate note that the results can be driven more by the legislation party leaders choose to bring to the floor and procedural maneuvers than their parties’ ideological beliefs. That means, as we’ll see later, the method can generate some counterintuitive results, and that it is perhaps a better measure of partisanship than world view. In particular, the model tends to elide the cultural debates that underlie and inform decisions about voting and policy.

But DW Nominate still gives us a rare empirical measure of political behavior. The most important trend this data has shown us in recent years is partisan polarization: The two major US parties lack any significant overlap across their elected memberships. This is a cause (or symptom) of frequent legislative deadlock and the general inability to run basic government activities like passing spending bills.

The most articulate narrators of this trend are the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, who pin this divergence on the rightward tilt of the GOP.  In this chart tracking members of the House of Representatives, there was no overlap between either party by 1992. (The most recent data from 2018 reflects just a few months of votes, so should be considered a speculative indicator.)

Besides the bars themselves, watch that black line representing the median Republican member move further right. It tracks the rise of the contemporary American right, from Newt Gingrich through the Tea Party to today’s Freedom Caucus. In the Congress that met first in 2001, the median Republican scored .4, while the median Democrat scored -.38. By last year, the spread had widened even more: the median Republican member scored .50, while the median Democrat scored -.40.

In other words, the center of the Democratic party in the House has barely shifted in two decades, while Republicans have become markedly more conservative.

Tracking today’s Democrats

That data doesn’t necessarily capture the change demonstrated by the 2018 elections and heading into the 2020 presidential primary. Though the 2019 DW Nominate data set is extremely limited at this point, we looked at the latest House rankings in comparison to those from the previous Congress to see what we could learn about how the Democratic party is changing. (Only two new members joined the Senate Democrats after the 2018 elections, while 59 new Democrats in the House offer perhaps a wider view of the party’s evolution.)

So far, the party medians haven’t shifted in the new Congress. Maybe the biggest surprise is that Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist and icon among progressive Democrats, is rated as one of the most centrist members of Congress. It’s a quirk of the small sample size, but also suggests that DW Nominate’s algorithm may not capture emerging intra-party rivalry: A key factor in the New York City representative’s ranking is that she voted against the spending bill that ended the government shutdown in February.

That bill was widely supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans; Ocasio-Cortez was the lone Democrat to vote against it because she felt it conceded too much to the Trump administration, including continued funding of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While this was a left-wing protest vote, the algorithm simply saw Ocasio-Cortez voting with Republicans and positioned her to the right.

Over time we can probably expect Ocasio-Cortez to drift back across the scale toward other members of the Justice Democrats, a group dedicated to shifting the party left by replacing more conservative Democrats with progressive alternatives that includes newly elected representatives like Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley, and Rashida Tlaib.

Policy evolutions can shift labels

It’s interesting to look at other changes in how members identify themselves by ideological group. Between the last Congress and the current one, the ultraconservative Republican Freedom caucus gained one member, while the moderate Republican Main Street Coalition lost 27. That jibes with the narrative of the 2018 election that saw Democrats make gains in many suburban districts viewed as moderate. The Democrats’ moderate caucus, the New Democrat Coalition, grew by 41 members, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus grew by 18.

Another way to consider the evolution of the Democrats is to look at specific policies. The idea of Medicare for All has become a shibboleth for progressive voters who seek to follow through on the goal of universal healthcare with a true single-payer system. It’s not exactly a new idea for the party: The longest-serving representative ever, the late John Dingell Jr., had introduced a Medicare for All bill in every Congress since 1957. (His father, also a lawmaker, first introduced the bill in 1947.)

Yet this year’s Medicare for All bill, introduced by Justice Democrats and Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, actually has 14 fewer sponsors than Dingell’s previous version. At first blush, that might seem like a counter-indicator of leftward movement—but it also suggests that what was once a symbolic commitment to universal healthcare has become a viable legislative proposal that entails actual political risk.

That transition results in part from the same trends that we saw in the visualization of the long-term evolution in congressional ideology. Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton pushed for bipartisan legislation designed to attract at least a few Republican votes. Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a swing at cost-efficient universal healthcare based on ideas from conservative policymakers, fit this rubric. It did not earn a single GOP vote when enacted in 2010. Anyone looking at the DW Nominate data wouldn’t have been surprised.

Since then, the act has grown in popularity with the public even as Republicans have repeatedly pushed to repeal it. Many Democrats, meanwhile, have grown dissatisfied with how little the complex law, which saw key provisions overturned in court challenges and still relies on private insurers, has changed the healthcare system. That in turn has lead them back toward single-payer approaches that have no chance of attracting Republicans.

The US is not built for real division

Ornstein and Mann have identified the disconnect between the real political actors and the US constitutional system: The design of the US government, with its many veto points and required compromises between branches of government, is not suited to deeply polarized parties. For many Democrats, the reaction is to stop thinking about bringing in Republican members at all. They have a model in the 2017 tax law signed by Trump, which skipped past bipartisan corporate-tax reform plans (and previous concerns about the federal debt) in favor of a party-line vote.

That legislative reality has made proposals that don’t bother with centrist trappings, like Medicare for All, free college, or the Green New Deal, far more palatable to Democrats.

“You always have a choice between narrowing the scope of coalition and broadening it,” says Mark Schmitt, director of the political reform program at the New America Foundation. As an example, a carbon tax is a very tailored answer for what to do about climate change. Schmitt says that idea “works for people who consider themselves environmentalists, who put a high priority on climate change, which is not in the top five issues. The alternative is to expand the scope of coalition—as well as the scope of conflict.”

The Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats is an example of that tack—it contains schemes to cut carbon emissions and fund renewable energy, along with explicit anti-poverty and job-growth policies designed to address economic inequity. Critics may argue that those aren’t explicitly environmental problems; proponents say they are building a Democratic coalition for action.

“It gets you further away from a bipartisan solution, but potentially closer to a one-party solution,” Schmitt says.