The rightward-shift narrative also persists because of the tendency to mistake rhetoric for reality. It focuses on what Republicans say, rather than on what they do. If the GOP moves right in words, but moves left in deeds, which direction has it really moved? Ever since the rise of talk radio, Fox News, and social media, Republicans have used harsher rhetoric (e.g., “Build the wall!”), but it’s often in service of the same, often moderate, policy views (e.g., enforcing immigration laws).

But it’s not even clear that there has been a rightward shift in Republican language, since these studies often rely on comparative rather than absolute measures of ideology. Slightly fewer Republicans today than in the past believe “the government should do more for the needy,” but this change has occurred even as government anti-poverty spending has risen substantially. This is less evidence for a rightward shift among Republicans and more evidence for a leftward shift in government policy. If the country moves left on an issue, but the Republicans don’t move quite as far left, this is, strangely, taken as evidence that Republicans have moved to the right.