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Elon Musk Is Right: American Politics Are Shifting. But Not in the Way He Thinks.

Elon Musk Is Right: American Politics Are Shifting. But Not in the Way He Thinks.

Last week, Elon Musk tweeted a meme you may have seen before about the shifting nature of American politics. It’s how a lot of people are feeling about politics in 2022.

You get the gist. A decade ago, a lot of people felt like they had a good handle on where they stood on the political spectrum. But times change, parties shift and priorities move. Fair enough. But did they move in the way Musk notes here?

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

First, as far as actual elected leaders go, both parties have shifted apart over the last few decades, though Republicans in Congress have veered right harder than Democrats have veered left. Pew Research found that in the 1970s, parties in Congress were generally much more closely aligned near the ideological center than they are today, though the biggest shift was driven by Republicans, starting during the administration of President Barack Obama and the birth of the Tea Party movement.

A line graph showing that Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left

Another way of illustrating this shift comes from an analysis by the Washington Post. In the chart below, you can see the number of voters who consider themselves moderate shrinking over time, as more Republicans and Democrats start self-identifying as conservative or liberal. In 1994, just 25 percent of Democrats self-described as liberal. By 2018, over half did. Likewise, the number of Republicans who consider themselves conservative was already over half in 1994, and has only grown since then.

So if you’re feeling like your politics have more or less stayed the same while everyone else’s is moving, you’re probably right. Some of this can be attributed to natural societal progressions: an increasing voice for historically marginalized groups, a stagnant economy and a growing wage gap. Others are more artificial, like polarizing news outlets, misinformation and social media campaigns.

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

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