As the dyspeptic mania that overtook center-left political commentators following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter subsides, enterprising partisans in the infotainment sector have found a new way to keep the outrage going. You see, Musk posted a meme, and that meme was bad.
The eccentric entrepreneur posted an image featuring stick figures reenacting the partisan realignment that has taken place in the United States over the past decade and a half. One stick figure—“me,” as it was labeled—stood near the “center” of the partisan spectrum in 2008, though slightly closer to the left than the right. By 2012, the left was running away from “me,” and the center had inched in his direction. As of 2021, however, our stationary protagonist found himself far closer to the equally stagnant “right” while the “woke ‘progressive’” now on the far left heckled him as a “bigot,” an outburst that contributes to this observable drift.
It’s a reductive and provocative political document, as all memes are. But it flagrantly disregards a bit of pseudo-academic conventional wisdom that maintains that it is the American right that became extreme while the left only passively observed the coarsening of our political culture. This line of reasoning harkens back to a theory that that polarization is exclusive to the right: “asymmetric polarization.”
In the last decade, Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann and American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein set out to “prove” that the Republican Party had self-radicalized. In 2012, the pair set out to stigmatize the common observation that “both sides” had succumbed to their fringes. “Democrats have become more of a status-quo party,” they wrote of the governing party, which was at the time trying to convince the public to ratify the status quo. By contrast, “Republicans are now more conservative than they have been in more than a century.” By mid-decade, this observation crystalized into the aforementioned notion of asymmetric polarization. If journalists didn’t uncritically promote the idea that polarization and radicalization were Republican phenomena, Ornstein wrote, they would abdicate their responsibility to properly inform the voting public about existing political trends.
Musk’s errant musing gave those who are still beholden to this theory an opportunity to publicly flog it once more. Though the left has drifted leftward over the years, Fletcher School Professor Dan Drezner wrote, “the conceptual blinders required to think conservatives haven’t moved even further to the right is, to use a 2008-era term, amazeballs.” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump trotted out DW-NOMINATE data, which doesn’t measure ideology but gauges roll-call votes to assess partisan and ideological sentiments, to empirically support the charge, even though “it’s not a great measure of what Musk is talking about anyway.” The Economist data journalist G. Elliot Morris promoted a number of graphical representations of the GOP’s radicalization, including some that appeared in reputable publications despite the subjectivity of their assumptions. Among them, is this rigorous analysis:
Crucially, even among these advocates of asymmetry, one aspect of the Mann-Ornstein thesis has fallen by the wayside—the notion that polarization was a Republican problem alone. In the new telling, polarization is now only more pronounced on the right than the left. But the thesis suffers still because its proponents do not define their terms when they bandy about accusations of “polarization.” That’s a problem because the word has a very different contextual definition today than it did in 2012.
In Mann and Ornstein’s telling, the GOP had become both “ideologically extreme,” “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,” and procedurally reckless. Fans of this theory—one of the few that explained how “a moderate” like Barack Obama could become such a lightning rod—focused to a prohibitive degree on the GOP’s rigid conservatism. No less a figure than Obama himself described the Republican Party as afflicted by an ideological “fever.” The symptoms being Republicans’ opposition to tax increases, a pathway to citizenship for illegal migrants, and infrastructure spending; e.g., an ideological attachment to limited government.
In the years since, the theory of asymmetric polarization has sloughed off the ideological elements that were once central to it. Its adherents had no choice if the idea was to remain operative. Not only have progressive Democrats grown more progressive, but conservative Republicans have become less conservative. Donald Trump campaigned for and assumed the leadership of the GOP while backing the provision of government stimulus, attacking reforms designed to preserve the nation’s unfunded entitlements, and endorsing the Obamacare individual mandate to purchase health insurance. He mocked his principled opponents—“it’s not called the conservative party,” the future president barked—and he won the argument. The prudential small-government conservatism that was once so indicative of the GOP’s radicalization disappeared.
At the same time, the left grew ever more ideologically progressive, as Pew Research Center demonstrated as early as 2017. This inconvenient finding was handily dismissed by Morris as “a measure of how consistent voters are in their beliefs, not how extreme those beliefs are.” If Morris cannot render a value judgment about the left’s increasingly extreme policy prescriptions, allow me.
As they wandered the wilderness in the Trump years, the progressive left incubated visionary plans for the country. Among them, the retrofitting of every freestanding structure in the nation to render them all climate-friendly. They backed the elimination of fossil fuels without a ready alternative. They endorsed “free” college and job training for those displaced by the decimation of the existing commercial economy. They supported a guaranteed income for the indolent, the nationalization of the health-care industry, the unconstitutional confiscation of wealth simply because it exists, and cultural warfare—an omnidirectional crusade against organic social covenants that they resent—on a wildly impractical scale. Joe Biden, who was thought at one time to represent a bulwark against the left’s most ill-considered ideas, turned out to be no such thing.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, it’s inaccurate to say the GOP as a party hasn’t shed its commitment to dogmatic conservatism, though the party has become more comfortable wielding the procedural levers of the state in an unprincipled fashion to attain its desired outcomes. But if that suffices for “asymmetric polarization,” the concept has no socially scientific value as it is too malleable to be consistently measured. Moreover, the right’s commitment to procedural warfare is precisely what advocates of “asymmetric polarization” helped incept into existence.
“Also, stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters,” Mann and Ornstein advised Democrats in 2012. The filibuster in the hands of Republicans “became a routine weapon of obstruction.” It was used to block unobjectionable nominees to secure unrelated objectives, prevent the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which the Supreme Court later deemed structurally unconstitutional) from doing its work, and used (albeit unsuccessfully) to prevent duly enacted laws from coming into force.
The ultimate logic of this admonition compelled Democrats to scuttle the filibuster for some judicial nominees—an act of procedural warfare if there ever was one. Republicans picked up that ball and ran with it, and their attachment to the norms of polite governance has grown more tenuous with each passing year. It would, however, be an act of blind partisanship to acknowledge only the right’s reaction to the erosion of norms and evaluate them in a vacuum.
While it may be gauche to cast aspersions on “both sides” these days, doing so benefits from being both consistent and demonstrable. The only pity is that this valuable corrective was occasioned by a dumb meme on the Internet.