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It is undoubtedly true that on some issues, Republicans have moved right and Democrats have moved left. I am agnostic about which team has traveled further, in part because I do not cede to Cillizza or anyone else the authority to define what constitutes the center.
The more important point is that in many respects, this just isn't true. Consider Trump. His position on trade, his signature issue, represents not a sharp break from the left, but a closing of the gap with it. Protectionism and "fair trade" have been staples of the Democratic Party's base for a very long time, which is why both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Likewise on infrastructure spending and entitlement reform, Trump hasn’t staked out some extreme libertarian stance, he has stolen the issues from Democrats. Just look at health care. The Republicans just unveiled their plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. It’s likely no Democrat in the House will vote for it, not because of its radicalism, but because it is an insult to Barack Obama’s legacy. I can understand their frustration, but their anger isn’t proof of a major ideological disagreement.
And this points to the source of the confusion. There is a natural human tendency to believe that those we hate must believe the opposite of what we believe. This is part of what psychologists call “the narcissism of minor differences.”
MORE COMMENTARY: What did the O.J. series teach us, if anything?
George W. Bush campaigned on “compassionate conservatism,” triangulating against the libertarian rhetoric of (the old) Newt Gingrich and the dour pessimism of social conservatives. His first legislative priority was bipartisan education reform, supported by Sen. Ted Kennedy. Bush’s prescription drug benefit constituted the largest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society (at least until Obamacare). He rejected the conservatism of William F. Buckley, arguing that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
And for these sins, Democrats instantly and continuously insisted he was some kind of radical.
Before Bush, Republicans denounced Bill Clinton as a left-wing extremist, even though he was a free trader, supported the death penalty, and campaigned on — and signed — welfare reform.
Even on social issues, where there are certainly significant ideological differences, the two sides are rarely on opposite sides of the issue. They are merely on opposing sides of some narrow questions. Conservatives don’t seek to outlaw homosexuality or transgenderism. They don’t seek to ban women from the workforce. To the very limited extent there are Republicans still seeking to forbid gay marriage, their position is the same one that Obama and Hillary Clinton held until a few years ago. Were they right-wing extremists in 2012?
MORE COMMENTARY: Marine photo scandal shows how things change, and not.
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote about how metaphors can do our thinking for us and bad metaphors can lead us to faulty conclusions. If “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
"Polarized" is precisely the kind of "dying metaphor" Orwell had in mind. The country is indeed polarized. But it is more socially and politically divided than it is ideologically. The root of the disagreement has more to do with making sure "our" team has power. What it does with that power is, at best, a secondary consideration.