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The political shifts Elon Musk may not have noticed

To believe the left has undergone a radical transformation, while the right has remained unchanged, is at odds with everything that’s actually happened.


Elon Musk, who’s poised to take control of Twitter, tends to publish a fair amount of politically provocative content, much of which is better off ignored. But today the billionaire raised a few eyebrows with this tweet:

For those who may have trouble seeing it, the image — which Musk apparently agrees with, but did not personally create — purports to show a political evolution of sorts. In 2008, Musk saw himself as someone who was ideologically center-left, but in the years that followed, as progressives moved further to the left — while, evidently, the right and Musk remained the same — he suddenly finds himself on the right.

We are apparently supposed to believe this is the left's fault: Musk hasn’t changed at all, the argument goes; it’s liberals who left him behind. He didn’t intend to end up on the right; it just worked out that way.

Obviously, Musk, like everyone else, is free to choose political ideologies and values in line with his conscience. If he used to see himself on the left, and now he considers himself a conservative, so be it. That’s his business.

But voters need to understand that the underlying claim at the core of Musk’s observation is literally unbelievable.

Just last month, for example, the Pew Research Center published a report measuring ideological shifts among Democrats and Republicans in Congress. The findings were as striking as they were important:

In case parts of the image are tough to make out, what the Pew Research Center found is that Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have moved a little to the left over the course of the last half-century, while Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the same period.

I’m of the opinion that few trends in American politics are as important as this one. Why is it so difficult for Democrats and Republicans to work out compromises? So is common ground so elusive? Why does it so often seem as the parties operate in competing realities? The chart goes a long way toward answering the question: The gap between Democrats and Republicans has grown as the GOP has gradually moved further and further away from the center.

And yet, there’s Musk’s tweet, insisting that the right hasn’t budged over the last decade and a half, while the left has scurried furiously toward a cliff.

To be sure, all of this comes with some caveats. Musk’s broader political vision, for example, appears to be idiosyncratic, and sometimes doesn't fall neatly along a left-right line. What’s more, it’s not at all clear which issues, if any, he’s referring to as part of this complaint. One could even quibble over the fact that Musk referenced ideologies, and not parties, which may not be entirely symmetrical.

But the bottom line remains the same: To look at American politics in recent years and conclude that the left has undergone a dramatic transformation, while the right has remained unchanged, is at odds with everything that’s actually happened. The radicalization of conservative politics in recent years has been profound, whether Musk has noticed it or not.