The far right claims there's a 'uniparty' in Washington. Reality suggests otherwise.

Democrats and Republicans have grown farther apart — and Americans know it.

April 16, 2024, 5:12 PM

Conservative populists in the Republican Party might have you believe that there aren't two major parties in the United States, but one conglomeration of politicians in Washington who are ignoring the desires of the American people. In its latest attacks against members of its own party, this faction has embraced a term that disparagingly links supposedly apostate Republicans to Democrats across the aisle: "uniparty." Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene used this descriptor last week to justify her calls for the GOP to remove Republican Speaker Mike Johnson from office. Greene said that Johnson, arguably the most conservative speaker in modern times, had overseen "a complete and total surrender to" Democrats in the House. Without a change, she continued, "we are a Uniparty that is hell-bent on remaining on the path of self-inflicted destruction."

Greene's castigation of her party's speaker, which came amid bipartisan negotiations over legislation to provide fresh assistance to Ukraine in its war with Russia, is just the latest episode in an ongoing conflict within the GOP between its more populist-insurgent and more traditionally conservative wings. Previous clashes have unfolded over the House speakership as well as spending bills to fund the federal government. Even if Greene insists that these compromises have "angered our Republican base so much and given them very little reason to vote for a Republican House majority," they seem to be more reflective of how out of step her own faction is from the rest of its party than of any moderate shift among Republicans as a whole.

In fact, our current political moment is arguably farther away from having anything resembling a uniparty than at any other time in modern U.S. history. Based on their voting records, Democratic and Republican members of Congress have become increasingly polarized, and both the more moderate and more conservative wings of the congressional GOP have moved to the right at similar rates. Meanwhile, polling suggests that Americans now are more likely to view the parties as distinct from one another than in the past, an indication that the public broadly doesn't see a uniparty in Washington. Although there are areas where the parties are less divided, the broader uniparty claim is at odds with our highly polarized and divided political era.

Congressional parties are farther apart than ever

A first strike against the uniparty claim is the evidence that the parties in Congress have steadily drifted farther apart ideologically over the past 50 years. The first dimension of DW-NOMINATE, a commonly used metric from that measures how liberal or conservative members' voting records are, demonstrates how the gulf between the parties has widened tremendously. On a scale ranging from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative), the average Democrat and average Republican in the House and Senate were roughly 0.5 units apart in the first couple of decades after World War II. But today, that gap is about 0.9 units — nearly half the scale.

A number of developments have played into this shift. During the middle of the 20th century, the parties were less ideologically sorted: Many Democrats, especially in the South, actually had more conservative voting records, while some Republicans had more liberal views on a number of issues. This created some degree of ideological overlap among the two parties. In fact, in the early 1950s the American Political Science Association was so concerned about how muddled the parties' views were that it now-infamously urged changes to bring about greater polarization in American politics!

Starting in the 1970s, however, the distance between the average Democrat and Republican in Congress began to widen, a trend that has not stopped. GOP members grew more consistently conservative, especially in the 1990s — which included the conservative-led GOP takeover of the House in 1994 — while the Democrats became more liberal as the party's conservative Southern wing diminished and its membership became more racially diverse. Many contributing factors may have played a role in increased polarization, including growing racial and cultural divisions among the electorate, changing sources of campaign money and the influence of partisan media outlets. Polarization isn't unique to Washington, either, as the partisan divide has grown in state capitals around the country, too.

Another potential ingredient is a highly competitive political environment in which both parties stand a good chance of winning national elections. With a real shot at holding power, members have intensified partisan conflict in Congress via a more confrontational, team-first approach that seeks to emphasize differences between the parties. This can be seen through increased party unity in congressional voting and a greater use of "messaging" bills that try to force the opposition party into casting votes that can be used against it in the upcoming campaign.

Digging further into the DW-NOMINATE data, Republican members of Congress across the ideological board have moved to the right — which runs contrary to the claim that a faction of notably less conservative Republicans have separated from the rest of their party to form a uniparty with Democrats. To show this, I broke up each party's House membership into thirds — the most conservative/liberal third, the middle third and the least conservative/liberal third — and then took the median ideological score for each group. In the chart below, you can see that the broader GOP's rightward trend over the past four decades wasn't isolated to its most conservative members, but that a clear shift happened throughout the party (swings in the Senate were similar).

From the 97th Congress in 1981-83 to the current 118th Congress, the least conservative third of the Republican Party moved nearly 0.2 units to the right by DW-NOMINATE's reckoning, about the same as the middle third, while the most conservative third moved right by almost 0.25. If less conservative Republicans consistently broke with the GOP to work with Democrats, we would expect to see — at the very least — notably less rightward movement among the least conservative third of the GOP. By comparison, House Democrats mainly saw movement to the left among those in the middle and least liberal third of the party, which corresponded in part to the reduction in more conservative Southern members.*

Americans more likely to view the parties as distinct

The public is not ignorant of how the parties' views have moved apart either; in fact, Americans are more likely to see them as clearly distinct than at any time in recent history. Take nearly four decades of polling by the Pew Research Center and its predecessor, which has asked respondents if they view what each party stands for as notably different. In 1987, only 25 percent of Americans said they saw "a great deal" of difference, 45 percent said "a fair amount" and 25 percent said "hardly any." Fast forward to 2023: An outright majority, 54 percent, said they observed "a great deal" of difference, while 35 percent said "a fair amount." Just 10 percent said they saw "hardly any" distinction.

Now, Pew's polling hasn't always shown an upward trajectory in perceived differences between the parties. For instance, amid an impasse over the federal budget in October 1995 — which resulted in a government shutdown that November — Americans became more likely to see a great deal of difference between the parties, going from 23 percent in July 1994 to 34 percent. And the share who saw a great deal of difference in Pew's most recent poll in 2023 was down slightly from 59 percent in 2021. Yet broadly speaking, the share of Americans who perceive a great deal or a fair amount of differences between the parties has clearly grown in the past 36 years — data at odds with the idea that the public sees one broad uniparty running the country.

This is not to say that some Americans don't feel represented by either party. In Pew's most recent survey in 2023, 25 percent said that neither party "represented the interests of people like them well." Those who identified less strongly with or only leaned toward a party were also significantly less likely to perceive "a great deal" of differences between the two parties than those who identified strongly as Democrats or Republicans. But negative or lukewarm feelings toward both parties doesn't mean these Americans see them as similar entities: Less than 10 percent of the weak party identifiers and around 15 percent of independent leaners said there were "hardly any" differences between the parties (Pew didn't report data for independents who didn't lean toward a party, which is a small group).

Other surveys have also found that Americans see key differences between the parties more today than in the past. In presidential election years from 1952 to 1976, only about half of respondents in the American National Election Study said there were important differences between the two major parties. That figure rose to around 60 percent or more from 1980 to 2000, and then jumped above 75 percent beginning in 2004. In 2020, a whopping 90 percent said the parties had important differences between them.

Increased distinctiveness and ideological sorting — with Republicans being more conservative, Democrats more liberal — have also made Americans more aware of where the parties stand. In presidential elections from 1960 to 1992, between 53 percent and 63 percent of those surveyed by the ANES said that one of the parties was more conservative, and that that party was the GOP, while between 27 to 32 percent of respondents said the parties were about the same or that they didn't know. By 2020, 79 percent identified the Republican Party as the more conservative party and only 10 percent said the parties were the same or didn't know (11 percent said the Democrats were the more conservative party).

That same old song

Really, the uniparty critique lodged by conservative Republicans today is just the latest in a long line of complaints about politics in Washington from groups outside the "mainstream" of the two major political parties. In the 1968 presidential election, segregationist third-party contender George Wallace said there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. The "uniparty" label to describe a conglomeration of Democrats and Republicans actually seems to have originated in the 2000 presidential race among supporters of a left-wing third-party candidate, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader. And Steve Bannon, once an adviser for former President Donald Trump, wanted the MAGA movement to overcome what he saw as a uniparty made up of members of both parties and the media.

But in today's highly partisan and polarized political environment, the gap between the two major parties makes the uniparty claim tough to swallow, even though Democrats and Republicans do arguably share a few commonalities. For instance, one study found that Democrats and Republicans in Congress proposed legislation with similar levels of spending between 1997 and 2018. Across a range of issue areas, the parties only differed significantly in their spending proposals in health care legislation, with Democrats wanting more spending.

What may be troubling the GOP's most conservative congressional faction is the reality that at least some bipartisanship is usually required to get things done in Washington. One study found that the coalitions that voted to pass legislation in the mid-2010s were almost as bipartisan in their makeup as those in the 1970s. As it turns out, the majority party in Congress has often had to rely on at least some support from the minority party to pass legislation. Getting that kind of support has proved to be critical to passing more of the majority party's agenda even to this day: Although parties are more ideologically cohesive now, the majority party hasn't become more successful in unilaterally passing its agenda — its success rate has barely changed since the 1970s.

We've seen this in the current Congress, where House Republicans' narrow majority and ongoing intraparty disagreements have made it historically difficult for the majority party to operate as such. That's made most of the recently passed legislation in the House the product of bipartisan majorities, as illustrated by the common practice during Johnson's tenure of passing bills under suspension of the rules — a procedure that requires two-thirds support, necessitating Democratic votes to get things done while also allowing these bills to get to the floor despite opposition from hardline conservatives.

Yet it's right-wing House Republicans who've helped bring about this situation. Members of that bloc forced the party to take 15 rounds to elect Speaker Kevin McCarthy in January 2023, instigated the ousting of McCarthy last October and now threaten to get rid of Johnson, too. While there is little evidence for an actual uniparty, the GOP's right flank has ironically only forced its own leadership to work with Democrats and further proved that some degree of bipartisanship is required to move legislation forward in Congress.


*To be clear, DW-NOMINATE is not a perfect tool for measuring ideological views in Congress. For example, Congress appears to have experienced asymmetrical polarization because the GOP has moved farther to the right than Democrats have moved to the left over the past few decades. Yet it's possible that DW-NOMINATE's left-right dimension hasn't picked up some Democratic movement to the left. Members of The Squad, a group of around eight progressive Democrats, don't rank among the most left-leaning due to instances when they voted against their party for not being progressive enough.

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