Elon Musk is right: American politics are changing. But not in the way he thinks.


Last week, Elon Musk tweeted a meme you may have seen before about the changing nature of American politics. That’s how many people think about politics in 2022.

You get the essentials. Ten years ago, many people felt they knew where they stood on the political spectrum. But times change, parties change and priorities change. Fair enough. But did they move as Musk notes here?

Research suggests it was a little more complicated, by a few measures.

First, when it comes to the actual elected leaders, the two parties have drifted apart over the past few decades, though Republicans in Congress have veered more to the right than Democrats to the left. Research bench found that in the 1970s, parties in Congress were generally much more closely aligned near the ideological center than they are today, although the greatest change was driven by Republicans, beginning in administration of President Barack Obama and the birth of the Tea Party movement.

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Another way to illustrate this change comes from an analysis by the Washington Post. In the chart below, you can see the number of voters who identify themselves as moderate decreasing over time as more Republicans and Democrats begin to identify as conservative or liberal. In 1994, only 25% of Democrats described themselves as liberals. In 2018, more than half did. Similarly, the number of Republicans who consider themselves conservative was already more than half in 1994, and has only increased since.

So if you feel like your policy has stayed more or less the same as others’ policies evolve, you’re probably right. Some of this can be attributed to natural societal progressions: a growing voice for historically marginalized groups, a stagnant economy, and a growing wage gap. Others are more contrived, such as media polarization, misinformation, and social media campaigns.

That said, blaming one party for the change — as Musk did in his tweet — is too simplistic. A growing number of young Americans are unhappy with both major political parties, and both have a lot of work to do if they are to regain that kind of trust. One thing that won’t work? Blame one side for all the problems. One thing that will probably happen anyway? Blame one side for all the problems.


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