Who's the Extremist?

As a progressive, I tend to think the Republican Party is much more ideologically extreme than the Democratic Party. There are many reasons, some of which may be more legitimate than others. But it turns out that my opinion isn't representative. According to this research from the Pew Research Center, the typical Democrat thinks the GOP is kind of conservative, while the typical Republican thinks the Democratic Party is really, really liberal.

This isn't something new -- as one influential study put it in 1985, "Liberals do not like conservatives; however, they do not dislike them nearly as much as conservatives dislike liberals." But you can really see it in this picture:


It's a little fuzzy, but if you look at the dark brown dots, you see that people of all stripes put the Republican Party at pretty much the same place -- somewhere between "moderate" and "conservative." But if you look at the gray dots, you see that Democrats think the Democratic Party is kind of moderate, independents think it's between moderate and liberal, and Republicans think it's crazy communist. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but you get the idea.

What's really interesting here isn't so much the views about Democrats -- that's pretty much what you'd expect, that voters of the opposing party would find it to be far more extreme than its own partisans, who know where their own party has disappointed them, would place it. What's odd, though, is the fact that on average there's so little difference between how Republicans and Democrats see the GOP. There's obviously some diversity within those groups -- some Democrats see the GOP as extreme, while others see it as moderate -- but it's still notable.

So why is this? It's hard to say, but my nominee would be the differing media systems partisans are drawn to. Conservatives are more likely to seek out highly partisan information sources -- Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc. -- than Democrats are. The latter may take in the occasional episode of Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, but they're getting most of their news from more neutral places like NPR and CNN. What makes the difference is that the idea that the Democratic Party is a bunch of socialists with a radical leftist agenda is a core component of the rhetoric on Fox, Limbaugh, et al. If you get your news from them, you'll hear that message every day, again and again. And eventually you'll start to believe it.

-- Paul Waldman

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