The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On major issues, the parties are seen as mainstream — with one exception

Antiabortion activists demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 13. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

There are really two ways to look at American politics at the moment.

One is to view the country as balanced, with views on many issues sitting near an imaginary midpoint. Little chunks of opinion meandering around the center, conversing pleasantly about the weather.

The other is to zoom out a bit, and notice that each of those chunks is connected to two heavy chains and each chain is being pulled by a large portion of a political party. This is probably the more accurate view of American political opinion, to see it not as a flag floating above a line drawn in the grass but as a marker in a nasty tug-of-war.

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Consider polling released Tuesday by CNN. The cable network and its pollster, SSRS, asked Americans to evaluate various policy positions held by each party. Across the board, respondents said that the parties’ positions were “generally mainstream,” from the economy to racial injustice to immigration. On only one issue for one party did a majority describe the party as “too extreme”: Republicans (second column, below) on abortion (last row).

On no other issue did even a plurality of respondents say that a party was too extreme. Just that one, in polling conducted less than a month after the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

But that’s the flag, dangling from the rope. Consider how the two parties are tugging in opposite directions on each of these. On each issue, at least half of the opposing party viewed the other side as “too extreme.”

The difference on abortion should be understood in that context. It’s not simply that Americans overall are sort of in the middle. It’s that the Democrats are pulling harder to their side than the Republicans are to theirs; that is, that Republicans are more likely to agree that their own party is too extreme.

You may be wondering about independents, who aren’t shown. That’s because they generally (here and in other polling) align with the overall view. Independents in the United States tend to align with one party or the other. In CNN’s polling, partisans and independents that lean toward that party tended to have the same views of the other side’s extremism as the partisans alone. (The number of true independents is small enough that polls often don’t break their views out.)

If we compare views of the parties on each issue as two axes of a graph, we can see that tug-of-war at work.

On the right side is abortion, the issue on which most Americans think Republicans are too extreme — most Americans and a quarter of Republicans! At left is the economy, which is the only issue where Democrats are viewed as more extreme overall, though only by 4 in 10 Americans.

“Extreme” is subjective and definitionally dependent as a point of contrast. Extreme relative to what? For partisans, it’s often “relative to their own party’s views.” But even that probably overestimates the consideration at play here. Why is the GOP platform on “the economy” viewed as too extreme by most Democrats and vice versa? What aspects of it are too extreme?

Or is “too extreme” simply another reflection of negative partisanship, a descriptor used against the other party simply because it’s the other party? Perhaps the tug-of-war analogy is more literal than metaphorical: The two parties are often tugging in opposite directions not because of either party’s views but just because, for years now, they’ve simply focused on winning the pulling.

In that context, the fact that abortion stands out makes sense. It is a point of obvious differentiation, particularly of late, given that polling has repeatedly shown that a complete ban — as advocated by loud voices within the GOP — is at odds with mainstream opinion.

In other words, “too extreme” often simply means “pulling the wrong way.” But even for many Republicans, that’s not the case on abortion.