Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Polarization or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Blame It All on the GOP

Glibness of the post's title aside, there was a recent post up at Voteview that suggested that Obama is actually the most moderate president of either party since World War II. I have replicated the image here for convenience sake: it tracks the relative polarization of president's over the last 65 years or so.

A few housekeeping details about the statistic behind the chart. The numbers are based solely upon a limited number of what are known as "presidential support votes," when the president actively supports a piece of legislation, which the blog concedes means will stretch the polarizing effects absolutely, as most of the support will come only on decisive votes. I suspect that on the second issue they are correct, and that relative effects will be cancelled out on both sides (think of it as just multiplying it universally by some constant).

My suspicion is that, concerning Obama, the chart demonstrates, with not insignificant decisiveness, his moderation relative to other Democrats. While some may claim that issues aren't statically "left" or "right" over time, I would respond that at least on the time scale we are looking at this, while certainly true, is relatively unimportant, perhaps excepting Ike and Harry Truman for existing in the pre-Civil Rights era (ish). Obama has refused, for example, to support general levels of taxation AND levels of progressiveness similar to those of even Bill Clinton, the lowest level of modern Democratic presidents.

On the other hand, I'm not fully convinced, at least by this analysis alone that this means that the Republicans have gotten more extreme in the post-Reagan era. My Communist bleeding-heart suspects that Republicans have gotten more loony polarized in their viewpoints, but more analysis is certainly necessary. Among others, I think there are plausible arguments to be made that:
A) Reagan-era conservatives were dealing with a much more substantial public sector, so that even if they wished to be more conservative than Bush II, they couldn't have done so in a politically feasible manner (note, too, that Reagan had a Democratic Congress for all 8 years)
B) Bush, on top of facing less resistance, was not forced to make any tradeoffs. He added to military spending, yes, but because of his reliance on debt, he was not forced to decide truly whether his priority was that or, say, Medicare spending (which he also had a hand in increasing spending in). Yes, Reagan relied upon deficit spending heavily as well, but nowhere near as much.

I've said enough. What do y'all think?

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