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Is AOC the most conservative Democrat in Congress?

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is a self-described “democratic socialist.” She has called for single-payer health care, tuition-free higher education, and a “Green New Deal” that would dramatically increase federal government control of the American economy.

However, political scientists confusingly identify her as one of the most “conservative” Democrats in Congress. According to the widely-used DW- NOMINATE roll-call scaling application, her ideology places her in the political center of the House of Representatives. This is because, as my recent book demonstrates, political scientists largely misunderstand and mismeasure ideology.

First, political scientists largely take for granted the false assumption that a “liberal- conservative” political spectrum is a useful way to describe and explain the behavior of political actors. As the intellectual historian Hyrum Lewis has pointed out, this paradigm is “completely wrong.” 

Second, political scientists erroneously believe that congressional roll-call scaling applications somehow reveal the inherent ideological ideal point of each member of Congress on a spatial spectrum running from “left” to “right.”

One of the reasons we cannot use the “left-right” spectrum to measure ideological change over time is because the very meanings of “left” and “right” themselves are constantly transforming.

Given these major problems with roll-call scaling applications, we should not be surprised that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is claimed to be “more conservative than 89% of Democrats in Congress.”

In order for her roll-call votes to tell us anything about her ideological principles, we would have to examine the content of those roll-call votes and then interpret them in a way that is relevant to political ideology.

Once we do this, we realize that Ocasio-Cortez earns a “centrist” ideology score not because she shares the same ideological principles as the members of Congress who self-identity as “conservative” but because, like them, she often votes against the wishes of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Ocasio-Cortez often dissents from her party because she believes they do not take their proposed reforms far enough.

On her first day in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez voted against her party’s rules measure because it reimposed a budgetary requirement that “would allow challenges to legislation that adds to the deficit.” Ocasio-Cortez argued that such budget hawkishness would “hamstring” progress on social welfare legislation.

Later that month, Ocasio-Cortez was the only Democrat to vote against the House bill to re-open the government. Unlike the 183 Republicans who also voted against the bill, Ocasio-Cortez opposed it on the grounds that it funded Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Despite the shortcomings of roll-call scaling applications, they unfortunately continue to be used extensively by political scientists. The most common complaint among students of Congress, basing their claims on DW-NOMINATE scores, is that the movement of the Democratic and Republican parties to the poles of “liberalism” and “conservatism” is the source of America’s contemporary ills.

But what, exactly, does it mean to say that the Democratic Party has become more “liberal” and the Republican Party has become more “conservative”? Such claims are useless without a detailed understanding of how, exactly, the very meanings of liberalism and conservatism have changed over the past century.

Before the New Deal, liberalism used to indicate a preference for limited government and free markets. Today, it tends to indicate the opposite. In the 1940s, conservatism indicated a preference for non-interventionist foreign policy and protectionist trade policy. In the 1960s-80s, it came to mean the opposite, and in the era of President Trump, it has reversed back to the earlier 1940s definition on those two issues.

On almost every issue imaginable, whether it is in the realm of economic policy, foreign policy or social policy, the meanings of “liberalism” and “conservatism” have evolved to mean the opposite of what they previously meant.

As a result, it does not make much sense to say that President Trump has moved the Republican Party to the “extreme right.” In reality, rather than making the GOP more “conservative,” Trump has helped to transform the very meaning and content of “conservatism.”

Both the claim of ideological party polarization and the claim that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is a conservative Democrat are flawed by fundamental misunderstandings of ideology and what roll-call scaling applications represent.

This critique does not mean that political scientists should abandon using ideology as an analytical concept. Ideology exists in the political world, and we need to come up with ways to effectively describe, measure, analyze and explain it.

We should continue to try to understand ideology because it plays such a significant role in explaining important political phenomena, but we need to do so more coherently and accurately.

Verlan Lewis is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado. He is the author of Ideas of “Power: The Politics of American Party Ideology Development.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi Political ideologies Political parties in the United States Political science

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