Which Party is More Extreme? The Mote in Markos’ Eye

The results of a recently released survey commissioned by The Hill (a journal focusing on Congress) of likely voters in 10 “battleground” states are garnering not a little attention among the chattering class. (The poll surveyed voters in congressional districts in Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin). The survey, conducted by the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland between Oct. 2 and Oct. 7, found that 44% of respondents say the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements.  Thirty-seven percent say it’s the Republican Party that is more dominated by extremists. The margin of error for the overall sample is 1.5 percent.  When the survey is broken down by party, the results grow more interesting still: 22% of Democrats surveyed say “their party was more dominated than the GOP by extreme views. The equivalent figure among Republicans is 11 percent.”  (The margin of error by party is 4.5%)

Perhaps the most crucial finding concerns independents: among this group, 43% say the Democrat Party is “more dominated by its extreme elements, compared to 37 percent who thought the GOP had fallen under the sway of extreme views.”  (Again, the margin of error among the subsample of independents is 4.5%)

I do not have access to the actual poll so, as always, take the results with the requisite dose of salt.  That being said, long-time readers of this blog will likely not be surprised that both parties are viewed by roughly equivalent number of likely independent voters (taking into account the margin of error, the Democrat Party is viewed as more extreme by a very small margin) as being hijacked by extremists, but the results do run against the prevailing media narrative that suggests it is the Republican Party that has been hijacked by extremists in the form of the Tea Party.  Instead, the survey suggests that many independents view both parties as almost equally susceptible to their more extreme elements.

The results are a reminder why Democrats are struggling during the current electoral cycle.  The most prominent public faces of the Democratic Party during the national  debates over the stimulus bill and health care are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – both of whom are viewed (especially Pelosi) as particularly liberal Democrats.  In upstate New York (I get to see their television ads) Republican candidates for the House are running ads that link the Democrats to Pelosi.  At the same time, any Democrat who voted for health care reform and the stimulus bill is being tarred and feathered as a liberal extremist.  In the context of a 9.7% unemployment rate that shows no sign of abating, a record budget deficit, uncertainty over health care, and a general feeling that the bank bailout bill benefited Wall St. more than Main St., Democrats in the House and Senate who supported the Democratic leadership on these votes are finding themselves vulnerable in the current electoral cycle.

More interesting to me, however, is how leading progressives have reacted to this poll.  Consider the comments of Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the liberal website the Daily Kos.

“Democrats haven’t nominated anyone like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell or Rob Johnson or Joe Miller for Senate seats, much less the myriad of wackos in House races across the country,” Markos said. “We don’t have media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh calling the shots for our party.

“But they have built their alternate world courtesy of Fox News, thus making them impervious to reality. Is that a problem? Sure. Even more so when Democrats think they can reason with this crowd,” said Moulitsas.

The irony of Markos comments, I hope, is not lost on you – but it clearly is on him!  He is completely oblivious to the fact that for many “extremists” on the Right, he is the Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh of the Left – the “extremist” calling the shots for “our party”.  Conservatives are convinced that it is Moulitsas and his supporters, through his website the Daily Kos and sympathetic cable stations like MSNBC, who in fact have created the “alternate reality.”  From the conservative perspective, it is Markos and those who share his views who are out of step with the mainstream.

I make no judgment regarding the validity of these competing claims.  Instead, my point is that Markos does the Democrats – including President Obama – no favor by dismissing the views of those who worry that the Democrat Party has been captured by extremists.  Rather than suggesting that respondents in these battleground states have been brainwashed by Fox News, Kos and Democrats would do far better to address their concerns. They could begin by acknowledging that President Obama, in confronting a Congress more polarized than any previous Congress since the Reconstruction Era, and having inherited an economic recession more severe than any since Reagan’s first two years, cannot afford to mortgage his presidency to the wing of the party that is viewed as extremist by almost half of all voters in key states. Democrats are going to lose seats come November – if Markos’ view that independents have been brainwashed by extremists prevails, that number is likely to be go up.

Note: We are entering the stretch run to the November midterm election, one that is shaping up to be among the most significant in two decades.  I’ll be blogging more frequently (on a daily basis, I hope) between now and Election Day, and I hope to hear from many of you in the comments section.  This is what democracy is all about!  (Plus you get cool t-shirts!)


  1. Matt, which party is more extreme (where you stand) mostly depends on where you live (sleep). In Vermont, their are so many secondary influences around suggesting that the Republicans are extreme, that I’d answer the question with “R”. But in Florida, a venue I am familiar with, its just the opposite. The secondary influences, by which I mean my social friends, merchants and the rest of the population I come into contact with, would say the Democrats are by far the more extreme party. A lot of your neighbors views rub off on you. So where you take the survey matters as much as the replies.


  2. These data might be explained by a “relativity theory” in which the survey respondents’ observations and thoughts regarding extremism are infected and affected by where he/she sits on a curve of views going from far Left to far Right. The more the respondents move towards the Right the less extreme the “conservative” tail of the distribution would appear, and the more extreme the “liberal” tail. This is what one might expect when the population in general has moved further to the Right, and when a position seen once as moderate now appears extreme.

  3. Jack – I agree. Moreover, there is evidence that people’s residential choices are consistent with your argument; Americans, who are increasingly mobile, are tending in recent decades to move into areas of like-minded people. They do so largely for reasons related to jobs and family, but the effect is to create electoral districts that are increasingly “red” or “blue”.

  4. Polling likely voters (as this survey does) is useful in gauging the sentiment among those likely to turn out on election day, which is helpful in predicting the results of the upcoming election. I would caution that likely voters (in 10 states) may not represent the opinion and feelings of the country as a whole, especially because upcoming Republican turnout is expected to be high. This shouldn’t give the Dems any hope for this election though.

  5. Aaron – You are right to raise a cautionary reminder flag; this is a survey of likely voters in 10 states and should not be misconstrued as a survey of all adults. Having said that, I suspect that a survey of all adults would show different percentages (probably by bringing the Republican Party-is-captured-by-extremists proportion up and/or the Democrat proportion down), but perhaps not drastically differ in overall interpretation. That is, a significant portion of Republicans would view the Democrat Party as captured by extremists and Democrats would think the same of the Republican Party, and a not insignificant portion of independents would fall into either category.

  6. Actually, this is a distinction WITH a difference. I don’t think the following view is too far from the average Democratic standpoint: That Liberalism at its best endorses a cooperative approach to partisan politics, espoused by Madison, and gives the benefit of the doubt in assessing peoples’ motives. GOP and Tea Party faithful start from a closed-minded orthodoxy, and prefer patriotic tradition and combat a la Hamilton to cooperation.

    When former Republican Members of Congress like Alan Simpson or Pete McCloskey disown their own Party — and greybeard Dems rarely do — they DO say that the GOP leadership has lost its bearings. Remember the GOP insurgency of the early 1990s that carried with it the complaints about the loss of “civility” in politics? That’s the deviation from the Founders’ ideal outlined above. It correlated with the rise in partisanship (DW-NOMINATE). See:

    We’re talking really about knee-jerk differences in approaches to politics. The Liberal “adopts the other’s perspective” on principle in trying to reach agreement on policy, while the Conservative believes perspective-taking is wasted effort. Voters suspect the Democrats are hopelessly Liberal — but that doesn’t mean that the GOP is not still the Party of No. In that sense, Markos is still on the money. Of course, as you rightly note, Matt, his self-proclaimed role of Liberal Crusader is symptomatic of tired, lazy, sclerotic rhetoric in the Democratic camp — not far from the tropes I hear from Speaker Pelosi.

    President Obama’s rhetoric tries to transcend this divide in the psychology of the Liberal and Conservative minds. On the right, “communitarians” like David Brooks are trying to transcend it too. Communitarians come from a fundamentally beneficent rather than belligerent philosophy of politics, though Brooks is not especially consistent in distancing himself from coarse politicians and voters.

  7. Martin,

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the substance of your comments re: the philosophical difference between liberals and conservatives, although I think the points you make deserve a very thorough discussion. (Madison certainly thought people were self-interested but that one could still construct a working government based on that self-interest.) My point re: Markos’ comments, however, was directed toward his assertion that Americans have generally been mislead by Fox News, conservative talk show hosts and other media sources, which explains the view held by many in these battleground states that the Democrat Party is as dominated by extremists, or more so, than is the Republican Party. Is it really all messaging? I’m doubtful, particularly since Markos and his allies have been busy peddling their own version of “virtual reality.”

  8. Matt, thanks for the patient reply, as usual. This is very thoughtful blogging, by the way — I’m enjoying it immensely. On messaging effects, I found this anecdote in the Post. Of course, it’s a carefully chosen data point.


    A Tea Party of populist posers

    By Dana Milbank
    Washington Post
    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    On the morning of Oct. 14, a cyber-insurgency caused servers to crash at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    The culprits, however, weren’t attacking the chamber; they were well-meaning citizens who overwhelmed the big-business lobbying group with a sudden wave of online contributions. It was one of the more extraordinary events in the annals of American populism: the common man voluntarily giving money to make the rich richer.

    These donors to the cause of the Fortune 500 were motivated by a radio appeal from the de facto leader of the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, who told them: “Put your money where your mouth is. If you have a dollar, please go to . . . the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and donate today.” Chamber members, he said, “are our parents. They’re our grandparents. They are us.”

    They are? Listed as members of the chamber’s board are representatives from Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical, Ken Starr’s old law and lobbying firm, and Rolls-Royce North America. Nothing says grass-roots insurgency quite like Rolls-Royce — and nothing says populist revolt quite like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In describing the big-business group as “us,” Beck (annual revenue: $32 million) provided an unintended moment of clarity into the power behind the Tea Party movement. These aren’t peasants with pitchforks; these are plutocrats with payrolls.

    There is genuine populist anger out there. But the angry have been deceived and exploited by posers who belong to the same class of “elites” and “insiders” that the Tea Party movement supposedly deplores. Americans who want to stick it to the man are instead sending money to the man. …

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