Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) asks questions during a meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in August 2020. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images
No, Democrats and Republicans don’t have have a similar “extremism” problem.
According to some members of the US press over the last few days, America’s two political parties have a symmetrical extremism problem in the House: The Democrats have Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Republicans have Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).
Axios labeled the two representatives as “Mischief Makers” in their respective caucuses. Politico, not to be outdone, suggested that while President Joe Biden “embraces the left” (meaning Ocasio-Cortez), House Minority Leader Kevin “may purge a member on the right” (meaning Greene). Fox News analyst Brit Hume suggested Ocasio-Cortez was perhaps more “dangerous” than Greene because she “escapes the scrutiny that attaches to Republican extremists.”
There are some areas where the comparison between the two lawmakers works. Both are new(ish) House members from safe seats who managed to capture public attention in a very short amount of time. Both have names that can be shortened into handy three-letter acronyms. And indeed, both are on the far end of the ideological spectrum in their respective parties.
But these surface-level similarities collapse under the thinnest scrutiny.
Ocasio-Cortez’s alleged “extremism” is her advocacy of a democratic socialist politics common among peer democracies; her signature policy proposal is a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent. Greene is a conspiracy theorist who has called for executing Barack Obama, claimed the Parkland school shooting was staged, and suggested a space laser controlled by wealthy Jews caused the 2018 California wildfires.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks outside the US Capitol on January 5, 2021.
One advocates for left-wing policy ideas in good faith; the other spreads absurd, offensive, and even dangerous lies.
The most interesting part about the AOC-MTG comparisons aren’t the similarities between the two but rather the differences. That this is how “extreme” is defined with regard to each congressional delegation reveals that while one party has moved somewhat to the left in recent years, the other has flown completely off the deep end, breaking American politics in the process.
It also shows how poorly equipped some members of the media are to convey this essential fact.
The obvious problem with the AOC-MTG comparison
American politics is often framed in terms of a linear ideological spectrum, with Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right. In this schema, the boundaries of the spectrum are set by who’s in power: Ocasio-Cortez is furthest to the left point, Greene is furthest to the right, and leaders like President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are somewhere in the middle.
But thinking about contemporary American politics in terms of left-right policy positions is a category error. Some of the most important divides aren’t about left-right issues such as taxation or abortion, but more fundamental points: whether to accept the rules of the democratic game and debate using the same set of shared facts.
On these metrics, there’s a categorical difference between Ocasio-Cortez and Greene.
Ocasio-Cortez promotes policy ideas that are controversial, but the sort of thing people of good faith can disagree about. You may think the Green New Deal or Medicare-for-all are bad policy, but they’re not necessarily unreasonable — ideas so absurd that believing in them is itself evidence of a kind of irrationality on the believer’s part.
Greene, by contrast, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the idea that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election, to the point where she wore a “Trump won” face mask on the House floor in early January. On her Facebook page, she has expressed far more absurd and even bigoted ideas, including the notion that the Pentagon wasn’t hit by a plane on 9/11 or the idea that Muslim immigration to Europe is part of a Jewish plot to destroy white Christian Europe via “miscegenation.”
When we say Ocasio-Cortez represents the “left flank” of the Democratic Party, what we mean is she has policy views that are well to the left of the median voter. When we say Greene is on the “right flank” of the Republican Party, we aren’t talking about her policy views on health care or LGBTQ rights. It’s not actually clear whether she’s all that extreme on policy, especially given how far to the right the GOP is in general.
Instead, we are saying she is part of a coterie of Republicans who are untethered from reality — so thoroughly ensconced inside their own informational bubble, they believe things that are objectively false and even dangerous to democracy. Greene may be an extreme example, but the general problem is much bigger: Lead “birther” Donald Trump was president until recently.
So the asymmetry between the “extremists” in the two parties is really an asymmetry between the parties themselves.
One is basically in contact with reality; a large portion of the other is not. The nature of their internal disputes reflects this basic asymmetry: Democrats disagree with each other about a public option versus Medicare-for-all, while Republicans disagree about whether to respect the results of a free election or overturn it via legislative fiat.
This is a difficult reality for large swaths of American media to convey. Accurately explaining the nature of the Marjorie Taylor Greene problem requires grappling with the fact that the Republican Party is, as an institution, broken in a way that the Democratic Party is not. But journalists are trained to be fair, to try to treat both sides as equally as possible — an important value, to be sure, but not one that should come at the expense of accuracy.
This is, at root, why you get the mirror-image portrayals of Ocasio-Cortez and Greene. It’s much easier to say “Republicans and Democrats both have an extremism problem” than to grapple with the fact that the internal debates on the two sides are categorically different in a way that casts one party in a much more favorable light that the other.
Matthew Sitman, who hosts a podcast on conservatism called Know Your Enemy, expresses the problem quite clearly:
I think one thing that’s happening is that, because the Republican Party has gone so far off the rails, there’s a resistance to speaking and writing honestly about that because to do so *feels* like you’re being almost absurdly pro-Biden or pro-Democrat as a kind of by-product
— Matthew Sitman (@MatthewSitman) February 2, 2021
It’s hard for a lot of journalists, especially at ideologically neutral places like Politico and Axios, to break the habit of drawing equivalencies between the two parties. But portraying the reality of American politics requires explaining what’s actually at stake in our political disputes.
And right now, the issues run far deeper than left versus right.