Find a piece of paper, turn it lengthwise, and draw a line that divides it on a 4:1 ratio (the crease should be 2.2 inches from the edge of the paper, you can check with a ruler after you make the fold). Now, take a new piece of paper and draw a line that divides it in half. It’s a lot easier, right? Your brain more easily identifies the center than 2.2 inches from the edge.
The same phenomena occurs in cognitive evaluation; when our brain processes two competing arguments it has a tendency to standardize the weights it assigns to each, regardless of how ridiculous one or the other is.
This cognitive fallacy can be used for political gain. Republicans have found they can move the center by staking absolutist right-wing positions and insist that the media give both sides equal weight; over time their positions became ‘conservative’ rather than ‘extreme.’ Rather than moving their positions to the center to become acceptable to a wider portion of the electorate, they make the absurd seem equal and opposite to the serious in an effort to make the center come to them.
The gross polarization of the Republican party can be observed empirically as well as anecdotally, through DW-Nominate scores, tax pledges and primary challenges faced by incumbent Republicans in both 2010 and 2012. Democrats are divided on which course of action to take; while the Democratic party has become somewhat more polarized over time, their degree of polarization has been far exceeded by the Republicans, and the party as a whole still attempts to move toward the ideological center in order to achieve electoral success.
The result is an extremely polarized electorate struggling to figure out how to relate to the most moderate president since World War II. Depending on who you ask, President Obama is either a raging socialist or a Wall Street sellout, an abject failure or a mass of untapped potential. All of these assertions cannot be true, and in reality none of them are. President Obama campaigned and has governed as a pragmatic moderate, and has achieved considerable success on policies ranging from averting an economic depression, ending the War on Iraq and, most notably, passing health insurance reform, becoming the first president to complete the project that every president since Truman has advocated.
The trouble with this is that the polarization of one party creates an incentive for the other party to follow suit; if one party is willing to compromise and the other party refuses to budge then the party that compromises disadvantages itself in getting the policies it wants. Moreover, the limited Democratic polarization that occurs as a response is met with the perception that their intransigence is equal and opposite to that of their Republican counterparts. Such a perception is highly flawed and allows Republicans to skew the national debate in a disingenuous fashion that is harmful to the American civil discourse.
The next time you hear someone call the President a socialist who promotes class warfare, recognize the game their statement plays with your mind. Moderate opinions still exist; a position to the the left of the rightward extreme is not necessarily a leftward extreme in and of itself.