The GOP: A DW-Nominate History

It is widely reported that the GOP has grown far more conservative in the last forty years, and although this is undoubtedly true, to what extent is it so? What’s more, how does it compare to the party’s history? At some point I will have an MC-Index scale for this, but I am still working on it. In the meantime, I have the one and only scale currently available to fulfill this purpose, DW-Nominate.

The GOP first starts appearing as a legislative party in the 35th Congress (1857-59) so I’ll start there. For those still unfamiliar with DW-Nominate, the scale is between -1 and 1, with the former being most liberal and the latter being most conservative. The lowest score for the GOP in the House was in the 90th Congress (1967-69), in which the average was 0.243. This made them a moderately conservative party overall. The highest? Why that would be the last Congress! The score was 0.503. This makes them an ultra-conservative party and on average over 100% more conservative than they were fifty-two years before. The lowest score for the GOP for the Senate was back in the 37th Congress (1861-63), at 0.2. The highest for the Senate was also the last Congress, the average being a 0.498. Thus, the average Republican in the House in the last session was as conservative as Samuel Devine (R-Ohio) in the 90th Congress, who was the 7th most conservative Republican in that session! The best representative of the average Republican of the 90th Congress in the last Congress is Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), and many Republicans are rather unhappy with him to say the least. There are a few caveats to be aware of here, however, before we take this as “objective truth” and I’m pretty sure I’ve gone over this before, but I feel its worth repeating.

First, most of the people who served in the last Congress are continuing to serve! Thus, their scores are subject to go up and down over time. Second, the DW-Nominate counts what are called “first dimension” votes. These are issues that fundamentally split left-right and excludes certain lifestyle and regional issues, and this constitutes most votes. Thus, votes on the subject of slavery would be splits between slave and free states, and counted as second dimension issues as it is fundamentally regional. Third, this is a quantitative rather than a qualitative measure. Thus, if there are two votes in a session of Congress on the income tax and, say, fifty on tariffs, guess what’s going to be weighed a lot heavier? Would it also not be true that there would be a bit of an imbalance how the House and Senate are weighted if the Senate casts fifty votes on tariffs given the chamber’s set up as being the one of greater deliberation and debate while the House casts two? Fourth, a lot of procedural votes get counted, which means that partisanship gets mixed in with ideological judgments and may obscure some more significant differences. And fifth, and this is more of an issue of public understanding and perception than anything else, there is an issue of translatability of past issues to modern day. However, thanks to a few transitional long-serving figures, this isn’t as great of a problem as you might think and can be overcome through examination of the subject, of which I can help!

All this being said, DW-Nominate is in fact quite good at distinguishing moderate-liberal Republicans from conservatives, and its overall validity over time was recently once again reaffirmed to me when I looked back to the 1st Congress and found as the most conservative in the House to be Fisher Ames of Massachusetts. Look up Ames and you will find a rigidly conservative, nationalistic, and capitalistic Federalist with a deep-seated fear of anything that had the appearance of radicalism. This included Jeffersonian democracy.

Comparable Era

Although this is not as conservative an era for Republicans as the past twelve years, it is the closest comparison: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In the 51st Congress, for the first time, the Republican average went above 0.4. The Senate would not achieve the same feat until the 58th Congress due to a higher number in proportion of Republicans who supported inflationary silver for currency. From the 58th (1903-05) to the 66th (1919-21) Congresses, both the Republican House and Senate would be above 0.4. This was despite efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to move the party in a moderately progressive direction. By the mid-1920s, however, Republicans in both Houses had moved to an average of below 0.4 and it would take the House Republicans until the 105th Congress (1997-99) to go above and Senate Republicans until the 111th Congress (2011-13) to do so. In fact, the party would be below 0.3 in both Houses from 1947 to 1981.

This is, bear in mind, one measure of how to determine ideology and it emphasizes party crossover a bit less than I do, as I use key votes that are designed to highlight differences between liberal and conservative wings of the parties.

A More Conservative Party?

Although Republicans made a record in the last Congress for conservatism and may exceed it in this one by DW-Nominate, they are not the most conservative major party. That would be the Federalist Party. The Senate Federalists never scored below a 0.528 average, and the House Federalists didn’t score below a 0.5 until their last three Congresses. However, be warned, conservatives, for this party DIED!

To do some data research of your own, go here: https://www.voteview.com/

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