A second dimension to American Politics

capitalby Rob Crawley

Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries 
[Via – NYTimes.com]

A poll released on Monday by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post found a partisan shift in the way Americans view the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs. In the survey, slightly more Democrats than Republicans said they found it acceptable for the N.S.A. to track Americans’ phone records and e-mails if the goal is to prevent terrorism. By comparison, when Pew Research asked a similar question in 2006, Republicans were about twice as likely as Democrats to support the N.S.A.’s activities.


I’ve been thinking more and more about how the parties seem to be splitting along authoritarian/individual freedom axes rather than just liberal/conservative.

Looks like there is data to back some of this up, based on previous votes.

Here is what the House of Representatives in  the 113th Congress looks like:


Along the liberal/conservative axis you can see that there is complete separation  of the parties.  But, along the second dimension, there is tremendous overlap between the parties.

What is this second dimension? It represents an axis showing fealty to the insiders of Washington or to those outside – those who look to Washington as the seat of power and those who look outside. This could be a surrogate between authoritarian, centralized power and individual, decentralized power.

What you can see here is that some Democrats, in the House for example, really love Washington. And they are also the most moderate of the party. This tends to be reversed in the Senate with some Republicans being the most establishment.

Now. if we look at a particular bill, most legislation results in a line that goes pretty much vertical – the Democrats all vote one way and the Republicans pretty much vote the other. 

Here is an example, in the Senate of the recent Immigration Bill:


You could pretty much determine how someone would vote purely based on where  they fell along the liberal-conservative axis.

But some legislation reveals this second dimension, producing a line that is much more horizontal than vertical.

Here is what the data looks like for the extension of the Patriot Act in 2011. The line is a statistical measure of where the predicted votes should be. Thus, if the vote fell only along partisan lines, it would be vertical.

The more horizontal it is the more the second dimension is important:

second dimension

What we see here is a line at almost a 45 degree angle. This means that it is both a combination of traits that are important. Here mostly conservatives and establishment liberals voted for the extension. But mostly liberals and anti-establishment conservatives voted against.

These sorts of splits seem to only pop up dealing with areas of national security. The same split was seen on the FISA extension bill. In fact, in the Senate it was almost a horizontal line.


On areas of national security, the Senate almost splits purely along this second dimension. It would only take a few changes – a handful of Republicans would do it –  to move this line to a completely horizontal one.

Then you might start seeing real coalitions starting to form between members of parties that might be very different than what the majority of each party might want. 

And that is how new parties are created – new coalitions around interests viewed as vitally important. The Republican party itself formed from disparate parties that came together for one thing – abolition of slavery.

I wonder if we are seeing the beginning of something similar? Will issues along this second dimension come to dominate legislation? If they did, we could see a new party arise.