The ongoing battle over Elon Musk's political polarization meme

As Allahpundit pointed out yesterday, Elon Musk posted this meme to make a point about where he stands politically.


What he’s saying is that he didn’t move to the right, the left moved so far left that his position now appears right-of-center. Musk confirmed that was his point in another tweet.

And later he tweeted this, objecting to both the far left and the far right.

Nevertheless, the initial meme has launched a pitched battle about whether there’s any truth to the idea that the left has moved to the far left. And it turns out it’s not such a simple question to answer. The pushback on the left came in the form of a tweet thread featuring several different graphs designed to show the opposite, i.e. that the right have moved father to the extreme than the left.


I won’t have time to go over all of these but, contrary to what Morris claims, it’s not that simple. For instance, the first graph he posted comes from PEW and is a visualization of something called DW-Nominate date over time.

This does show the right moving more to the right than the left moved to the left but it’s important to understand what this means. DW-Nominate scores voting patterns in a range from -1 to 1.  They show the likelihood of individuals voting in lockstep with the party, not what those votes are about. In other words, someone who is quite far left can appear more centrist on this scale because they are more willing to buck the party. For instance, DW-Nominate scores AOC as a centrist.

Here’s the score which is hidden unless you expand the image above:

Suffice it to say that DW-Nominate doesn’t really capture the ideological movement of the party (right or left). Yesterday, Philip Bump looked at this and, to his credit, admitted there are problems with using DW-Nominate scores to measure something like this. Instead he offers another metric:

There are a lot of valid criticisms of DW-NOMINATE in general that we could examine, but it’s not a great measure of what Musk is talking about anyway. Instead, let’s consider how Americans actually identify their own politics. Luckily, we have a metric for that: evaluations of ideology as measured in the biennial General Social Survey (GSS). The survey asks people to score their identity on a scale from one (extremely liberal) to seven (extremely conservative). In the middle is four, moderate.

Here’s how members of each party (including those who identify themselves as “strong” partisans) have rated their ideology on average since 2002.

What you’ll notice is that Democrats and strong Democrats have, in fact, gotten more liberal — but that Republicans and strong Republicans were far more polarized in the first place.


At the end he comes up with what he says is a more accurate version of Musk’s meme:

There’s are several problems with this, the most obvious of which is that Bump has replaced an individual (labeled “me” in Musk’s meme) with a moving average labeled “overall.” But the whole point of Musk’s meme was that an individual who didn’t move at all was now being cast in a different light. And in fact, Bump’s version of the meme shows the same thing. If you add a stick figure for “me” that is initially just left of “overall” that same figure is just right of “overall” at the bottom:


Let’s look at another example used to “debunk” Musk’s meme. This is the Global Parties Survey which was a survey of populist rhetoric. Hard to see but the point here is that the US GOP is that dot on the right while the Democratic Party is the one on the left. The point is that on a global scale the GOP is more conservative than conservative parties in a lot of countries.

The NY Times looked at a similar chart put together by a group called the Manifesto Project back in 2019. Again, it showed the GOP was further right that most right-wing parties worldwide and placed the Democrats just left of the median. However, when looked at over time the story noted US Democrats were moving left:

The Democrats fall closer to mainstream left and center-left parties in other countries, like the Social Democratic Party in Germany and Britain’s Labour Party, according to their manifestos’ scores.

And the United States’ political center of gravity is to the right of other countries’, partly because of the lack of a serious left-wing party. Between 2000 and 2012, the Democratic manifestos were to the right of the median party platform. The party has moved left but is still much closer to the center than the Republicans.


Here’s the chart. Notice that this one is opposite the DW-Nominate chart in the sense that it moves from past (at the bottom) to present (at the top):

Similar to the data Philip Bump looked at, this suggests the US started with a center of gravity further to the right but that recently the left has been pushing substantially to the left. And if you once again imagine someone who is pretty close to the left on policy circa 2008, that person is closer to the right in 2016.

Of course there are plenty of objections you could make about this chart as well. Does the language of political platforms really capture where the party is at in any meaningful way? My point is only that there is some data that sort of backs up the idea behind Musk’s meme, i.e. that some people who considered themselves basically on the left might now feel the party has moved away from them. David A. Graham looked at the question of how far left the left had moved back in 2018. Here’s a bit of what he had to say.

According to Pew data, 46 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters now identify as liberal—up from 28 percent 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the percentage who say they’re moderates has dropped from 44 to 37…

…digging into Pew’s data on specific positions can provide a good sense of how Democrats are moving leftward on certain issues, especially immigration, economics, and race. Most astonishing is immigration. As my colleague Peter Beinart has reported, leaders in the Democratic Party have undergone a dramatic shift toward unalloyed support of immigration, including to a certain extent illegal immigration. But voters have moved as well. In 1994, just 32 percent of Democrats said that immigrants strengthened the country. Now 84 percent do…

On economics, three-quarters of Democrats say that the government doesn’t do enough to help poor people, up from half in 1994. Two-thirds say that government should regulate business more, again up from half in 1994. Conversely, in 1994, two-thirds of Democrats believed that people could get ahead if they were willing to work hard. Now only half do. The percentage of Democrats who believe that corporations make too much money is up 12 points…

The percentage of Democrats who say that the government needs to do more to fight racism has risen from 57 to 81 since 2009. In 1994, four in 10 Democrats said that racial discrimination was the main reason black people couldn’t get ahead; in 2017, more than six in 10 did. White voters have moved especially dramatically, as Thomas Edsall notes: On both of these indicators, white Democrats are actually further left than black ones.


Meanwhile, the right has clearly moved left on some cultural issues such as support for gay marriage and arguably on economic issues to. You don’t here as much talk about the national debt or dealing with entitlement programs as you did a decade ago.

Finally, I’ll point to this Q-Poll from back in 2019 which seems to really capture the feeling Musk’s meme is about:

There’s zero question that President Donald Trump has moved the Republican Party to the right – tonally and on things like immigration policy – over the past few years. What is less well-covered is how far Democrats have tacked to the left in recent years, and how there appears to be some level of unhappiness within the American electorate about the liberalness of the opposition party.

New data from a Quinnipiac University poll paints that unrest in stark relief.

Asked whether the “Democratic Party has moved too far to the left, too far to the right, or would you say the Democratic Party hasn’t moved too far in either direction”, nearly half – 47%! – of respondents say that the party has moved too far left. Asked hat same question of the Republican Party and just 37% say it has moved too far right.

Almost 6 in 10 men (57%) say Democrats have moved too far left as do 55% of whites with a college degree. Whites, generally speaking, are much more likely to say the party has moved too far left (53%) as compared to Hispanics (33%) and blacks (17%).

Again, there are a bajillion objections (approximately) that can be raised to every particular point I’ve made but I think people trying to ignore how some people feel about this issue aren’t really doing so because of the data.


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