The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Forget ‘polarization.’ The problem is right-wing extremism.

Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor, gives a thumbs up as former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Prescott, Ariz., on July 22. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Much of mainstream political coverage characterizes “polarization” to be an undisputed, self-evident and defining feature of American politics. The phenomenon is supposed to explain the rise of MAGA extremists, political gridlock and a host of other ills.

One problem: We don’t have polarization. We have right-wing extremism.

One need only look at primary elections this year to see which party craves mainstream support. The notion that progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) represents the heart of the Democratic Party is clearly wrong. As the Associated Press reports, “New York City Democrats chose Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who is more of a centrist, over several progressive rivals. … About 30 miles north in the Hudson River Valley, a powerful establishment candidate, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, defeated a state lawmaker running to his left and backed by Ocasio-Cortez.”

Axios similarly noted at the end of July that of the 22 primaries in safe Democratic seats in which a progressive candidate challenged a more moderate one, the moderate candidate won 14 — or about two-thirds — of the races. That included victories for “Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the only pro-life Democrat in the House; a come-from-behind victory by Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown over progressive favorite Nina Turner; and a landslide defeat for former Rep. Donna Edwards against Glenn Ivey in Maryland.”

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And where the more progressive candidates won, as with John Fetterman in Pennsylvania’s Senate contest and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin’s, they often did so by stressing their support for a center-left economic agenda and their own working-class roots.

Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy of the moderate think tank Third Way, tells me, “Moderates and mainstream Democrats romped with only a handful of exceptions.” He points to a 77 percent success rate in primaries for candidates endorsed by the moderate NewDem Action Fund. These Democrats, he adds, “are much better positioned to appeal to swing voters in the majority-making red and purple states and districts. Midterms are always rough for the party in power in the first term of a presidency, but if Dems over-perform historical trends in November, it will be because they put up mainstream candidates to face extremist Republicans.”

Meanwhile, MAGA extremists have dominated GOP primaries, turning a potentially strong year into one in which the Ohio Senate seat is at risk (thanks to Republican candidate J.D. Vance) and the Pennsylvania Senate and governor are leaning Democratic due to the candidates’ extreme views. And while Arizona’s Senate race was supposed to be a winnable seat for Republicans, the moderate incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Kelly, leads MAGA favorite Blake Masters by a substantial margin in some polls.

The GOP’s list of nominees is stacked with election deniers, prompting many staunch conservatives to refuse to back them. Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), for example, vowed to defeat Republican Kari Lake in the Arizona gubernatorial race. Likewise, a flock of Pennsylvania Republicans have endorsed Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor over Doug Mastriano, an election denier and forced-birth advocate.

It’s not polarization when one party recognizes the results of a democratic election and the other does not. That’s radicalization of the GOP. Nor is it polarization when the GOP reverts to positions it has not held for decades (e.g., banning abortion nationwide, ending the protected status of entitlements) while the Democratic Party accommodates its most conservative members as it crafts popular legislation (e.g., paring back proposals to allow the government to negotiate prices for pharmaceutical drugs).

Consider also the parties’ different treatment of abortion. Republicans are furiously scrubbing from their websites their extreme positions in favor of forcing women to give birth. Meanwhile, Democrats are loudly touting their support for Roe v. Wade, which more than 60 percent of the public favors. One party is trying to conceal its extremism; the other is advertising its mainstream views.

“Polarization” is an easy dodge for those in the mainstream media who remain addicted to false balance and moral equivalence. Instead of pointing to one party’s descent into delusions and radicalism, they advance the false idea that both parties are becoming extreme. Perhaps the media should level with voters: We have only one mainstream, pro-democratic national party.