The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans now see both political parties as equally extreme

Supporters of former president Donald Trump attend a campaign rally to benefit Mehmet Oz, a Pennsylvania Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
5 min

Polling released on Friday by CNN indicates that Americans generally view the two main political parties as equivalently extreme in their views and policies. It’s a finding that’s interesting in the context of the recent debate over partisan extremism, prompted by Elon Musk’s meme on the subject — but also one that’s interesting for the question it raises about the inherent subjectivity of “extreme.”

If the extreme becomes normal, is it still extreme?

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Since 2000, CNN and its polling partners (most recently the firm SSRS) have occasionally been asking Americans to evaluate the extent to which either party is either mainstream or extreme. If we pick out the last time the question was asked in years for which data is available, the pattern looks like this.

Notice two things. The first is that the trend in perceived extremism for the Democratic Party has been generally upward (after the retraction of the jump just before the 2010 midterm elections). For the Republican Party, there was a big surge between 2010 and 2012 that peaked just after the government shutdown in 2013. Since then, the percentage of people saying that the Republican Party is too extreme has dropped.

Again, we are looking at only sporadic polling, which makes it a bit harder to describe what’s happening. But it does seem to reflect how the parties are perceived in general. That the Democrats were seen as more extreme just before the 2010 election in which they were blown out and that the GOP was seen as more extreme immediately after the 2012 election (a loss attributed at the time to the party’s failure to moderate) and then after the shutdown seems noteworthy.

But also consider how views have changed since October 2013, at which point 56 percent of respondents said the Republican Party was too extreme. Since then, views of the extremism of the GOP have dropped among every partisan group, including Republicans. Views of the extremism of Democrats have increased — with Republicans seeing an 11-point increase in their likelihood of describing the Democrats as too extreme.

At the time of the Musk meme debate, I looked at how people identify their own ideologies. This is an imperfect measure of “extremism,” certainly, given that it, too, is subjective. What that analysis showed is that Democrats in 2021 were more likely to call themselves liberal than they were in 2012. Republicans were also more likely to call themselves conservative, though they moved to the right less than Democrats moved to the left.

(The years 2008 and 2012 are highlighted as they were the focus of Musk’s meme.)

But there’s one hard-to-avoid factor that is likely contributing to this: Republicans were already further from the center.

Again, “too extreme” lacks any objective measurement. It’s an individual assessment of how something compares to what’s expected. In the example of these polls, that’s “the mainstream.”

Consider how the GOP has changed since 2013, however. It ousted one of the members of its House leadership team largely over concerns about his being soft on immigration. (The party’s position on immigration, you may recall, was one of the immoderate positions to which its 2012 presidential loss was attributed.) It elevated Donald Trump to be the party nominee in part thanks to his extreme rhetoric on immigration but, more broadly, on his embrace of the party’s far-right supporters. This was the path to victory outlined by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (perhaps the central figure in the 2013 shutdown) during the 2016 cycle: move to the right to energize disaffected right-wing voters and trust that more-moderate Republicans would stick around. Most did.

Then there was the Trump administration and its fallout, culminating in the broadly embraced effort to deny the results of the 2020 election. Not to mention another, longer shutdown entirely motivated by Trump’s desire to force Congress to fund a wall on the border.

Is this a party that is less extreme in its positions than it was in 2013? Or has the GOP’s current approach to politics, congealed in the tea party era, simply become the party’s mainstream? As was pointed out after this article was first published, it’s also worth asking how media consumption affects this. If you are immersed in partisan news narratives, it’s safe to assume that your perception of extreme and mainstream views would be affected.

Again, it is the case that the Democratic Party has also moved toward a pole in recent years, as made clear in the graph above and, certainly, anecdotally. Americans seem to think that overlaps with the party being more extreme now than it was in 2013. But is it accurate that the Democratic Party’s move to a partisan extreme came as the GOP was moving away from the other extreme?

Or is the GOP manifesting what is expected of the GOP more than the Democratic Party is manifesting what has been expected of it?