House Republicans have created their own ideological spectrum

As Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, John Boehner’s resignation exposes a seeming contradiction for House Republicans, who are at once as united as they ever have been in opposition to Democrats and yet remain fiercely divided internally. No caucus has ever voted unanimously against their opposition as frequently as House Republicans under Boehner, yet the soon-to-be former Speaker was constantly fending off (incompetently) rebellious members of its more conservative wing.

This would seemingly make him at once remarkably successful and remarkably unsuccessful as Speaker at the same time.

Silver explains the latter phenomenon — conservative dissatisfaction with Boehner — with the following chart, which shows that there is more ideological diversity in the House Republican caucus than there has been for at least the last century:

As far as relative conservatism goes, the 90th percentile Republican is more more conservative than the 10th percentile Republican today than they were at other times when the party controlled the House. That’s a big tent to hold together, and it’s no wonder that there were divisions within the party as to which fights to prioritize, how to approach the Obama administration, whether to concede the point on immigration reform and so on.

In other words, Peter King (DW-Nominate: .283) and Justin Amash (DW-Nominate: .898) are both fine with voting to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood a kajillion times, but only one of them wants to repeal and defund the entire government, and both of them are representative of sizable chunks of the Republican caucus.

But that’s not all. As I hope you noticed at first glance, the chart also shows just how unprecedented House Republicans’ conservatism is. The 10th percentile Republican today is more conservative, as measured by DW-Nominate, than the 90th percentile Republican was under Reagan. As Silver adds:

John Boehner, via Wikimedia Commons

John Boehner, via Wikimedia Commons

GOP lawmakers have steadily become more conservative, according to the system. DW-Nominate scores run on a scale from roughly -1 (extremely liberal) to +1 (extremely conservative), where 0 represents a centrist, and the median House Republican in the 92nd Congress, which served from 1971 to 1973 under President Richard Nixon, had a DW-Nominate score of +0.193, only very slightly to the right of center. By the 113th Congress, the median score had increased to +0.732, which is extremely conservative. The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now, says DW-Nominate.

Taken together, the data show that House Republicans cover more ideological ground than they have in at least a century, and all of that ground is to the right of where their most conservative members have sat since the Great Depression. They aren’t just on the right side of the American ideological spectrum; they’ve essentially created an entirely new spectrum.

Having convinced themselves that Democrats are wrong and bad and evil about literally everything, the only debates Republicans still feel are worth having are amongst themselves. They aren’t just on the other side of the ideological playing field; they’ve picked up their ball and moved a few fields over.

But sure, tell me more about how “both sides” are to blame for our historic levels of polarization.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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