Defining “Moderate”

Chatterbox has a pedantic streak in him, so when he saw an interesting statistic in Sunday’s Washington Post (in an article not by some schmuck journalist but by two political scientists), he wanted to know the methodology. The piece was about the 105th Congress, which is just now finishing up. As did Chatterbox a few days ago, the authors, Sarah Binder and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, argued that this was a pretty insignificant Congress. The memorable statistic, offered up as a reason for this non-accomplishment, was as follows: Moderates make up less than 10 percent of the present Congress. By contrast, moderates made up fully one-third of the 93d Congress, which served from 1971 to 1973 (i.e., during the Senate Watergate hearings). Despite all the partisan rancor brought about by Watergate, that Congress managed to pass a lot of important laws on campaign finance, war powers, the environment, etc. Conclusion: legislation requires moderation.

Chatterbox doesn’t quarrel with that, but was curious to learn how the Brookings scholars came up with their definition of “moderate.” Chatterbox figures that Brookings is pretty authoritative on the subject of what is or isn’t moderate, in much the same way that Julia Child is pretty authoritative on the subject of what is or isn’t yummy to eat. Binder, reached by phone, proved a patient explainer. The raw data were legislative ratings of individual members based on eighty to ninety percent of all votes conducted. These were compiled by Keith Poole of Carnegie-Mellon and Howard Rosenthal of Princeton, and are available in book form (going back all the way to 1789!) in Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting, published by Oxford University Press. The scores go from negative one (most liberal) to positive one (most conservative.) It must be a sign of the times that political science defines liberalism as “negative” and conservatism as “positive.”

Binder and Mann calculated the median scores for Democrats and the median scores for Republicans in both the House and Senate. Then, for each legislative body, they calculated the midpoint between the Republican median and the Democratic median. This they identified as dead center. If a member’s score was closer to dead center than to his or her own party’s median score, bang, that person was a moderate. If not, he or she wasn’t a moderate. By this reckoning, the center in Congress is definitely shrinking. According to Binder, it constituted a third of Congress through the 1960s and 1970s (a period many of us remember as quite divisive: Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.), but has now dwindled to less than one-tenth.

Binder concedes that this reckoning does not take into account any shift in the political spectrum that occurs over time. Overall, Chatterbox’s unscientific judgment is that these are more conservative times than the 1960s and 1970s. Neoconservatives, pointing to the various ways liberal policies like affirmative action have been institutionalized, would probably argue the opposite (“I didn’t leave the party, the party left me”). Chatterbox will concede that there’s less institutionalized thuggery in the government than there was, say, during the Nixon administration, when the White House concocted a plan to firebomb the very Brookings Institution that Binder and Mann call home. On the other hand, there’s a lot less going on at Brookings today that would tempt anybody to firebomb the place….

–Timothy Noah