The Radicalization of the GOP is the Most Important Political Story Today

  • submit to reddit

In this July 10, 2013 file photo, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., emerges from a closed-door meeting with House Republicans to work on an approach to immigration reform at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) once claimed that “80 to 85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists” and called those who worship in them “an enemy living amongst us.” He held McCarthyesque hearings into the supposed “radicalization of American Muslims,” parading a line of prominent bigots through the House Homeland Security Committee.

He’s an outspoken advocate of the war on terror – The New York Times called him “the Patriot Act’s most fervent supporter” – and has been a leading figure politicizing the attacks on our consular office and CIA station in Benghazi. King was a fierce opponent of George W. Bush’s efforts to reform the immigration system. He railed against the Occupy movement, and opposed both the 2009 stimulus package and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He called for the prosecution of journalist Glenn Greenwald for reporting Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. He has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee and a zero percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The Drum Major Institute gave him a seven percent rating for his votes on issues of importance to the middle class last year.

In the past few weeks, dozens of political journalists have dubbed him a moderate. In fact, he’s been anointed a leader among the Republican moderates. He earned that label because, like other New York pols, he doesn’t blindly support the National Rifle Association, and because he opposes shutting down the government and threatening to unleash a potential economic catastrophe in a hopeless quest to defund Obamacare. That’s it. That’s how low the bar of moderation in the Republican Party now falls.

Arguably, the most important political story of our time – one necessary to understanding the last five years of so-called “gridlock” in Washington, DC – is one that journalists wedded to the idea that ‘both sides do it’ are uncomfortable reporting: the wildly asymmetric polarization of our two major political parties as Democrats inched to the left and Republicans lurched to the right.

This week, Dan Balz, senior correspondent for The Washington Post, took a deep dive into the roots of the latest crisis. He attributes it to “a deepening red-blue divide in America [that] has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century.”

The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent worldviews and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago. Many activists describe the stakes in apocalyptic terms.

Balz covers a lot of ground, noting that red districts have become redder and blue districts bluer. He points out that there are fewer districts in which one party won the congressional vote while the other party got more votes in the last presidential election and notes that conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans no longer exist in Congress. He talks about the role gerrymandering has playedin this and the even greater impact of natural migration patterns that concentrated Democrats into tightly packed urban districts while Republicans got the advantage in suburban and rural areas.

But, he didn’t discuss the most important political trend of our time. Only toward the end of the piece, on the fifth and final page, did he offer a throwaway observation that, “Republicans have shifted more to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left,” before adding, “but on both sides passions are stronger than they were two decades ago.”

This anodyne statement glosses over the radicalization of the Republican Party since the 1980s. That shift isn’t merely a matter of opinion. Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal developed a statistical measure of lawmakers’ voting records that allows scholars to study the dynamics in Congress empirically. The system, known as DW-NOMINATE, ranks legislators according to how far they veer from the midline of congressional votes.

Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker used this data for his 2006 book, Off Center, in which he noted that since 1975, Senate Republicans have moved twice as far to the right as their Democratic counterparts have moved to the left. Of course, this shutdown is being driven by the Republican-controlled House, and in the lower chamber Hacker found that Republicans had shifted six times further to the right than their Democratic counterparts went to the left.

On the DW-Nominate scale, -1.000 represents the position of the most liberal vote, while +1.000 is that of the most conservative. The bigger a lawmaker’s number, the further his or her record is from Congress’s center. In the 100th Congress (1987-1989), only around four percent of Republicans had a score over 0.600, but by the last Congress almost a quarter of the Republican caucus fell into that group. The same dynamic wasn’t apparent on the Democratic side of the aisle: The share of Democrats who scored between -0.600 and -1.000 rose from slightly less than six percent of the caucus in 1989 to just over nine percent in the last Congress.

But that’s not the whole story. DW-Nominate scores don’t measure lawmakers’ liberalism or conservatism. They measure how far their votes are from other votes in the same Congress. As such, it doesn’t factor in shifts in the ideological center itself. That center has shifted dramatically to the right over the last 30 years.

In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, from their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:

One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

There is no doubt that at the root of this crisis is a deeply polarized public. But, the key aspect of this story is that the Republican Party veered toward the extreme of its ideological orientation just as the country was becoming more diverse and tolerant – and as the most progressive generation in 70 years was coming of age – and that dissonance has driven them to cast off the legislative norms that have traditionally made our divided government work.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
  • submit to reddit encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to

Find out more about's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • Anonymous

    Okay… but which way forward?

  • destroyideas

    It’s amazing how an objective journalist can write “live in parallel universes” without commenting on which one of those universes is closest to reality.

  • Scobos

    At least the message is getting through, and the obvious is being touted. I’m seeing a little more objectivity, but also have been looking for it. Thanks, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert !!

  • Anonymous

    a mainstream media staunchly committed to false equivalency perhaps?

  • Oh Zee

    Maybe the reason is We Now Understand Freedom, and will not let it Slip Away!!!

  • Oh Zee

    Our Realization of what the Constitution Stands for, and the Truth will Set US free!

  • Anonymous

    This phenomena trends with the rise of strident radical talk radio; aka Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and that ilk.

  • ProgressiveWarrior


  • Anonymous

    And, don’t forget Karl Rove and his brand of campaigning. That too yell-radio and quadrupled the effects.

  • Anonymous

    Fear. And, those who take advantage of the fear of others for their own power and financial gain.

  • Anonymous

    A lot of money and propaganda

  • Anonymous

    You are absolutely right. They are loud and in your face and backed by the Koch Brothers. We are polite and quiet and shy from conflict(for the most part) They thrive on conflict. Sometimes,the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if it isn’t all a plan to divide the masses in order to keep us controlled. The economy is poor and our lifestyle is disappearing. If we were united we’d be a force but as long as we are quarreling we are totally harmless. Their arguments seem so far fetched,sometimes it’s hard to believe THEY can buy what they’re saying.

  • Anonymous

    Random capitalization? Overly-jingoistic ‘MURICA NUMBUR WON11!!!” rhetoric?

    Teabilly spotted.

  • Anonymous

    Money in politics. The country is far more liberal than our politicians and policy would imply. It’s only a very small segment of the extremely-rich that are influencing our politics and pushing them to the far right of where they should be.

  • Marilyn Goodman

    And strident radical talk radio as well as one-sided cable news networks that call themselves “fair and balanced” were made possible by the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine.

  • Anonymous

    Over the years I’ve felt the shift to the right, and the loss of compassion and following the rules. Thanks for showing studies that have quantified this.

  • Marilyn Goodman

    Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, even Richard Nixon, would today be labeled RINOS and primaried out of office by the members of today’s Republican Party.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the kind words.

  • Curmudgeon

    I think it should also be noted that the founding fathers structured our government in such a way that helps prevent the dangers of a radical element(or “faction” as noted by James Madison. see ” The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” in the Federalist Papers No. 9) from taking power.

  • BlueSky

    The end of the Fairness Doctrine, which _mandated_ equal time for opposing viewpoints on TV and radio. No FOX news spreading fear, hate, and dissent to people who never hear opposing information.

  • Thomas Paine

    Ted Cruz is still waiting for his 30 pieces of silver from the Koch Bros, but Ted is unfortunately too self-absorbed to notice that the Koch heads have flown the coop.

  • Aggie L

    While most of the mainstream media is frustratingly behind the curve, msnbc, the lineup from NOW (bypass Andrea Mitchell) to LAST WORD and UP, MHP, and DISRUPT on weekends have been remarking on this issue for years. Daily Show and Colbert certainly point it out.

  • Aggie L

    Excellent point. And the ‘red states’ are a perfect example of how our entire economy and social contract would run. Yuck.

  • Aggie L

    Remember Jon Stewart actually got Bill O’Reilly to admit the right-wing bias of Faux News.

  • Jennifer Read

    You obviously don’t remember the sixties. I do. The Democratic Party has moved so far to the right that Richard Nixon would feel at home in it. Rachel Maddow once did a brilliant series of clips demonstrating exactly that. I wish she’d air it monthly.

  • Wally/ Milton, WI53563

    Right on Jennifer. I wish all would see Rachel’s show as often as they can…can see on internet couple hours after TV show monday- friday…on

    I recall President Johnson and his bringing the poor up some levels, caring for the blacks and minorities, Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights…my kind of President and I do not know if we will ever see the likes of one as him again…The war was very, very bad but Johnsons great accomplishments are often not seen because of one of our stupid wars that the brightest in pow
    er cannot see is wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Very well-financed media campaigns manipulate public opinion. Assad and Putin both have hired American PR firms to improve how we perceive them. A recent NY Times article described the campaign, launched after President Obama was re-elected, to discredit ACA. The media campaigns earn a lot of money and they are effective.

    Distortions and lies have come to be regarded as fair play. It doesn’t matter if your’e called out for lying, you just keep repeating it until it sounds plausible. Someone in the Bush administration talked about making their own reality as if that were a good thing..

    Yes, you can say both sides do it, but it’s apparent the Republican message machine has been more successful. Limbaugh and Fox have played an important role, but I think Rand Paul’s comment about poll-testing was most revealing.

  • Colon

    Democrats have inched to the left? That’s absurd. After the democrats lost in a landslide to Reagan in ’84, they leaped to the right. This is exactly why democrats are celebrating the Affordable Care Act, legislation that was drafted by the Heritage Foundation in the 90′s. The democrats made the Bush tax cuts permanent. The democrats voted for the war in Iraq. Obama proposed a cut to social security when the Republicans didn’t even offer it. Here is a book written 25 years ago about the right-leap that the Democrats made.

    Obama has said himself that he would be a moderate republican if he were in the political atmosphere of the 80′s.

    Democrats haven’t inched to the left. They’ve pushed the Republicans off of the right-wing cliff. They are the new Republican party.

  • sgodwin

    It seems to me that one of the most dangerous aspects of our government is gerrymandering. Absurd redistricting has insured that the radicals will be elected and will not face any problems being re-elected in their home districts. Unfortunately, changing that system will not come from those in power – it’s going to have to come from a grass-roots level. And that will be tough, but necessary, if we want to take back our government.

  • Terri DiA

    I like the way Bill Maher put it “the left wing moved to the right and the right wing moved into the psych ward”.

  • Emerald Griffin

    Are you sure you understand freedom? Are you afraid of freedom? Do those who long for freedom have reason to fear you? Interesting that the loudest voices proclaiming freedom speak more against the ACA than they do against the NSA, speak in opposition to the war against poverty while supporting a war against the poor. I’d dearly like to know exactly what it is that you understand about freedom.

  • Terri DiA

    Bingo!!! You nailed it.

  • Terri DiA

    I swear some times Jon Stewart presents things better than anyone else does.

  • Mike

    I believe this a long term result of the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine. As media was allowed to become biased, pundits started becoming more radical in order to gain ratings. Hyperbole = ratings. We are losing the ability to rationally discuss and solve problems.

  • Anonymous

    Mark Shields, on PBS News Hour, observed with some passion that the disintegration of the GOP was bad for the country. Worth pondering as Mark is shrewd and insightful.

  • Doc

    The American Taliban. Screw women’s rights, stop voting rights except for the rich, screw the poor and sick. It is their own fault they have these problems. More proof: They both cling to their guns and religion. Neither group has a good thing to say about Obama. Neither group will accept the problems they cause the countries they are in.

  • Anonymous

    The Dems have inched left? LOL that is a delusion.
    The Dems have inched right of that there is no doubt.
    Mr Holland I hope you read this and comment.

  • Anonymous

    They do seem to be dying off like flies though, squirrel eater from Alaska, Bachman, Rubio all clammer up that stripper poll and expose their back sides and for that we thank them. As scary as Cruz is… they just end up going too far in exposing their vision. BUT, should he be elected to the executive I am immigrating somewhere and wait out the war and military coups and petty dictators to follow in the wake.

  • Mark

    Joshua, I’ve been reading The Fifteen Biggest Lies. Thanks for the education and eye-opening information. We need to understand what’s happening below the surface and we’re not going to get that in the daily news. Keep up the great work. It’s appreciated.

  • Gloria Hexom Maloney

    Isn’t it more like “defense”?

  • Anonymous

    Richard Nixon? Barry Goldwater would be called a Liberal.

  • nnyl

    The right seems to embrace plutocracy.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly think the center has moved right. But that’s hard to quantify. What DW-Nominate scores tell you is that Dems have moved inches away from the center of Congress, while the GOP has moved yards from the center.

  • Anonymous

    See my comment above.

  • Tom

    The Dems are far to the right of where the Republican party was when I was a boy. No hope there.

  • Anonymous

    Thank goodness the default avatar is now Malala (an inspiration) and not the orange Boner (a douchefestation)

  • Anonymous

    Echo Chamber engaged fully. I work with morons who have no input other than Fox News and Limpbo. I want to gouge my ears out at times the stupid is so thick and unchecked.

  • tz

    Ah, you must remember the days of the Eisenhower administration?
    If there was a proposal to return the the tax structure as it existed then, those on the contemporary Right would scream “Communism”. Of course the have screamed “Communism” way too many times already.

  • Anonymous

    People are very confused about left and right. That is a direct result of the “elite’s” not-so-subtle shoving of the Overton window to the right since the very frightening ’60s when people were starting to understand things about cooperation and collectivism, being one’s brother’s keeper, etc…. all very scary concepts when you’re trying to sell the merits of living in a dog-eat-dog world (or, “YOYO” if you prefer).

    Today’s democrats look like the 1968 GOP.

    Today’s GOP itself is so delusionally extreme that there is nothing to compare it to. There is a small faction of Republicans who are actual moderates, which makes them look like an ’80s republican. But the rest of them? Ignorant ideologues, know-nothings and extremists.

    Obama = not a leftist. he is a true centrist and blows with the wind

    Congress = mostly centrist. Harry Reid, a Democrat? reely? haha that’s a good one… and he’s the Senate leader. Reid is a perfect example of a centrist — he is not really a liberal or a conservative, but he leans left-ish.

    This is what passes for a liberal.

    Grayson, Feingold, Kucinich… they are all progressives and would have fit in well with the 1960′s democratic party.

    The left has lost it’s way but living under the extreme effects of right-wing governance I smell an incipient world-wide (true) progressive movement…

  • Anonymous

    and yet they fondly remember the ’50s as a great time in America. Marginal tax rate on the wealthy was 92%… people in this country were never better off, financially. That should have kept going, but the PTW saw to it that Reagan put a stop to that…

  • Anonymous

    Glad you’re enjoying it!

  • Anonymous

    I have been a voting Dem since I was drafted in 69. My unscientific observation is that Obama is Reagan (he talks about him all the time as if he was a Cod) , and the Dems are the new Republicans. We have incrementally followed the flat earthers to the right. It must stop.

  • Tom

    You nailed it. Exactly right, and exactly the right time. If I hadn’t seen it, I would never have believed the U.S. could have gone in the direction it has.

  • Kathy Collins Hurt

    Gerrymandering and Citizens United…..very hard to beat! But worth the fight to try? Absolutely!

  • Anonymous

    The Koch brothers have had a lot to do with the shift to the right. They have heavily funded Tea Party candidates and a myriad of right-wing organizations, actively promoting a reactionary agenda that denies climate change, opposes universal healthcare, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — “big government” (defined as social programs, not the military/industrial/security complex). It is likely that their worldview is similar to their father Fred’s, who was a founder of the John Birch Society. Their, and other similar-thinking ultraconservative’s wealth has enabled the spread of misinformation and the election of legislators willing to use any methods necessary to further this agenda; witness the recent government shutdown in opposition to already-passed Obamacare legislation. More moderate Republicans are forced to stay quiet or support this agenda for fear of incurring their wrath come re-election. Democrats are drawn further right by appeasing or compromising (or funding). Democrats belatedly seem to be standing up to these bullying tactics over the shutdown. We’ll see. Fred must be proud of his boys.

  • heebiegeebies

    gerrymandering contributes

  • JAM


  • JAM


  • JAM

    Freedom…. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  • JAM

    Exactly. But the overall Bircher/Libertarian trend started long before that, and was conspired by the plutocrats:

  • JAM

    Exactly. But the overall Bircher/Libertarian trend started long before that, and was conspired by the plutocrats:

  • Anonymous

    In many important ways, both parties have lurched far rightward. For example, Eisenhower strongly defended the 91% top marginal tax rate of his day. No mainstream Democrat would do that today.

  • WTF Over???

    The political Tower of Babel….

  • Anonymous

    Uh……OK, if you say so.

  • Robbi

    LOL. Good god please don’t give us links to the huffington post and expect us to buy into that as a news source.. The Huff post is no more news than fox. they are both op ed. one is so far right you can’t believe it and the other is so far left they don’t seem to offer real truth unless its presidentially approved. Moderates read it and then go find real news from some site that may offer it. Please.if you’re going to link us.. go find the last bastion of real coverage.. under some rock somewhere.

  • Robbi

    I would agree with that statement. The right worships money and the left worships government —the right side seems to want nothing more than big business to rule and the left side seems to work harder to make victims than to promote heroes. ..

  • Robbi


  • nnyl

    “We have to understand in this country that the domination of business by government is called communism. The domination of government by business is called fascism, and that’s what you’re seeing, that form of government.

    Well, our job is to walk that narrow trail in between and hold big business at bay with our right hand and big government at bay with our left and walk that narrow trail in between, which is free market capitalism and democracy.

    To do that, we need an independent press that is willing to stand up and speak truth to power and is going to inform the public and we need an informed public that can recognize all the milestones of tyranny and we don’t have either of those things left in this country”
    –RFK Jr.