Defying Gravity

Defying Gravity

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Off Center

Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy
by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
Yale University Press, 2005, 249 pp., $25.00


As any scholar of Warner Brothers cartoons can tell you, it’s no big deal to run off the edge of a cliff. From Wile E. Coyote to Daffy Duck, countless cartoon characters have charged ahead even though there’s naught beneath them but a thousand-foot drop. It’s only when they pause, look down, and realize that there’s nothing propping them up that they finally careen to earth.

In Off Center, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson—political science professors from Yale and Berkeley, respectively—direct our attention to one of the central mysteries of our time: how Republican elected officials have turned themselves into distinctly less amusing and way less lovable versions of those midair Warnerians. How is it that the national Republican Party has been able to govern from the far right even while the public opposes it on issue after issue? Enacting policies that have no visible means of public support (indeed, that engender widespread public opposition), the Republicans, by every known law of political physics, should have long since dropped to earth. Though the party “has strayed dramatically from the moderate middle of public opinion,” write Hacker and Pierson, “the normal mechanisms of democratic accountability have not been able to bring them back.”

One bit of conventional wisdom that Pierson and Hacker dispel immediately is that American politics is polarizing in a symmetrically bipartisan fashion, with the Republicans moving right, the Democrats moving left, and the American public staying in the middle. In fact, in the aftermath of the Big Bang that was the political realignment of the sixties (chiefly, the conversion of the white South from Democratic to Republican), the particles speeding away from the center are almost all on the right. In 2003, the Republican member of the House with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median Republican member of the early seventies. The Democrat with the record at the midpoint of his delegation, by contrast, was just 28 percent more liberal than his early-seventies counterpart, and that change was largely due to the elimination of the southern wing of the party.

For its part, the public has not joined the Republicans in their rightward galumph. Looking at three decades of survey data, Pierson and Hacker conclude that on both economic and social issues, the public has, if anything, moved somewhat to the left. Responding to a range of questions measuring their support for more services even at the cost of higher taxes, fully 39 percent of Americans in the year 2000 opted for more federal spending, while just 17 percent wanted less. P...

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