XKCD's massive map of Congress's political leanings since the start

Just in time for election season, XKCD's Randall Monroe has busted out another of his amazing, wall-sized infographics, this one depicting the swings to the left, right and center of the senate and the house, through all of US electoral history.



  1. This chart doesn’t account for some major realignments in American politics. Democrats were not leftists in the 19th century, they were the conservative racist pro-slavery party.  Republicans were the progressive party until the early 20th century and the anti/less racist party until the mid 20th century. The terms “left” and “right” lose meaning as you go back in history.

    1.  Or at least they switch sides. I was just reading about the radical republicans recently, and it’s hard to think of people who (to greater and lesser extents) supported universal suffrage, union rights, and infrastructure projects like building highways, public schools, and universities as far-right.

    2. I think the era of Jackson (where the party began and was quite populist although quite racist) complicates your point.

    3. The chart follows its own rules – it looks for politicians who vote the same, and organizes them into blocs.  It is neutral as to the content of the measures being voted on.

      The left-right divide is based on present state, and the blocs are extended back such that the ancestral parties stay mostly on the respective sides.

      1. and the blocs are extended back such that the ancestral parties stay mostly on the respective sides.

        Right, this is what folks are complaining about. It’s just put “Democrat” on the left and “Republican” on the right, regardless of the fact that President Obama and Jefferson Davis were from two completely different political ideologies.

        It’s basically similar to the idea that the democrats have a “history” of racism in their party, when really it’s just the name “Democratic Party” and has nothing to do with the ancestors of the current party.

    4. It was more complicated, even, than what you describe.  Early Democrats were in favor of state’s rights (local control), and were against federal centralization of banks and power.  Especially banks.  The issue of slavery divided the Democrats, destroyed the Whigs, and gave the Republican Party a chance to rise with Abraham Lincoln.  And it’s even more complicated than this…  “Left and right” didn’t switch back and forth.  It was simply more complex.

    5.  Instead of looking at it as a representation of who’s on the “left” or the “right” at any given time, look at it as a representation of growth and retreat of various political coalitions at any given time.  Randall put in some methodological notes that suggest why the chart came out the way it did — basically, it’s based on who votes together and only one variable is required to chart that (as a contingent matter of history). 

      It’s based on real data.  Randall isn’t editorializing, he’s literally just making a graphic of data that other people put together with widely used methodologies.

      “Left wing” vs. “right wing” is fairly arbitrary and is always an opinion.  That’s not what the chart’s about.  The chart is about which members of congress voted alike rather than their absolute position on some imaginary “left wing v. right wing” spectrum.

  2. It seems weird to keep the left/right thing confined to democrats/republicans. Surely the colors should have switched sides on that graphic at least once or twice. I mean, going back to the mid 19th century, it was the republicans were the liberals and the democrats the conservatives.

    1. I agree. Labeling right/left based on the party name (rather than political stances) seems silly.

      This infographic considers President Obama and Jefferson Davis at the same place on the left/right spectrum because they both called themselves Democrats.

      1. I get the feeling most of you didn’t actually read the graph – he addresses this point, AND his methodology in determining left/right.

        1. I read it, I just found it extraordinarily unconvincing, in that reducing ideology to a single point renders it effectively meaningless. Any system that labels the radical republicans as far right is absurd. Which is not say that the original study’s findings are wrong, just that extrapolating too much from the data is…problematic. 

          1.  Yes. Just as absurd as labeling secessionist slave-holding Democrats far left. It is almost as if we shouldn’t try to shoehorn history into modern dichotomies.

          2.  @boingboing-4d96a03adf73ea2dc121851ac7b0e0df:disqus  – you’re right, the right-wing / left-wing divide only dates to the French revolution.  That’s six whole years of American politics in which the right/left divide wasn’t available.

          3. Well, I think that’s what the graph shows, doesn’t it? The disappearance of the center right in modern days? But it’s kind of weird to see the Republicans of 1865 characterized as far right.

            ETA: as to the left/right thing, I don’t think it was the use of left/right that clevername was objecting to but the way the graph shoehorns previous political dynamics into our modern conception of what democrats/republicans are.

          4. It’s not a chart of “ideology”.  It’s a chart of political affiliation as assessed by how politicians actually voted.  It’s a chart of a public data set assembled using a public methodology. 

            I don’t understand how the word “unconvincing” even applies.  “Hey guys, I made a sweet chart by graphing this data set.”  “LIAR!”

          5. It’s unconvincing because the premise is that the single point is all there is to democrat / republican and the political fortunes thereof. I doubt the sudden swell of support for republicans at the end and right after the civil war had much to do with the free market. To say something is unconvincing is not to say “Liar”. That’s BS. To say that something is unconvincing is to simply say that the conclusions are not entirely convincing due to flaws in the premise. There is a theory, for example, that the collapse of the Roman empire was due to desertification and shifts in the climate. If I say it’s unconvincing, i do not mean that I think the people that did the study are liars, or that their data is wrong. Just that I think it’s an oversimplification that puts too much “blame” (for lack of a better word) on one factor of many. 

    1. Is it possible to have a political discussion, or indeed any discussion and reserve statements to the equivalent of “You’re/They’re wrong” rather than “You’re/They’re evil incarnate”?  Not picking on you Rob, I am just sayin’.

      1. For a queer woman such as myself, they ARE evil incarnate.

        Perhaps you should look at it from someone else’s perspective.

        Because you don’t have an entire political party calling you a whore because you’re unmarried and on birth control, and telling you that you deserve to go to hell because you’re not straight. You also don’t have an entire political party trying to take away your right to birth control. Or your right to choose.

        I’m a second class citizen to these people.

        I think, maybe, it’s alright if I treat evil people who are out-right attacking me and my rights as evil fucking people, thank you very much.

        Also, stop patronizing. 

        This isn’t a theoretical “discussion for me”, no matter how much it is for you.  This is my actual, real life we’re talking about.

        1. Since when are the Republicans trying to take away the right to birth control? I know they’ve been trying to somehow undo Roe v. Wade for a while, but last I looked no one of any stature is trying to make birth control illegal. Not least because the religious right is mostly Protestant leaning and historically the ones who had a big problem with birth control were Catholics. And as I recall even Santorum waffled when they asked him his opinion of the Griswold decision in one of the primary debates…
          As for ‘an *entire* political party’, while there are plenty of scary reconstructionist types lurking in the Republican party, the actual standard bearers end up being corporate tools who pay lip service to the religious right (funny how that works). Romney wouldn’t do any of the stuff you’re talking about – he’d much rather spend any political capital he had cutting tax rates.

          1. Since when are the Republicans trying to take away the right to birth control?

            For God’s sake, Google it.  Quite a few Republicans, including big names like Mike Huckabee, want to make birth control illegal, or let states make it illegal, or defund it, etc.

          2. Just off the top of my head…

            1) Limiting birth control by allowing pharmacists to not dispense morning-after drugs if the pharmacist is philosophically opposed to birth control.  

            2) Trying to limit birth control availability through the insurance framework – see “religious exemptions”.

            3) The flat-out _unconstitutional_ cutting of funding to Planned Parenthood, with some claiming that the vast majority of PP funding goes to abortion (a bald-faced lie)

            4)The promise to return to limiting foreign aid if the health care message includes abortions – the so-called Mexico City policy.

            This isn’t the libertarian “everyone lives in fre-market utopia-land” party that you seem to favor, this is the fascist Religious Right from puritan assholes like Dobson and Robertson and Falwell who think Jesus should dictate how one makes their body choices.

          3. Wow. 

            Thanks, dude, for the man splainin’.  Clearly you know more about these issues, even though they don’t directly effect you.

            Mitt Romney is running for president and has stated that he wants to make repeal Roe vs. Wade.I bet you’re going to just tell me, “but he doesn’t really MEAN IT!  I know he says that *to get elected*, but he doesn’t really mean it!  I swear”Oh, yeah, that TOTALLY makes me feel better.


            Also, did you gloss over my other points? I am not straight. Mitt Romney does indeed want to take my rights away.

            Not that you care. Obviously.

            And for Fuck’s Sake, Jan Brewer is my governor. I live in Arizona!

            Do you know who Sheriff Joe is?!?!?!

            I KNOW WHAT EVIL IS. I live it every day!

          4. Seriously? Well, I gotta ask – when was the last time you looked?

            Here is one saying outright that of course eliminating birth control is one of the goals: http://www.npr.org/2011/09/20/140449957/gov-perry-cut-funds-for-womens-health-in-texas

            Ok, fine. That one was a yr ago. But Steven King from Iowa is on tape just last week saying that he hasn’t stated a position on whether or not selling BC should be legal.(!) In the fucking year 20-12.

            What do you think all those personhood amendments are about? Not just Roe – they would also make BC illegal along with IVF.

            What do you think all those “conscience clause” laws in places like the Dakotas, Utah, Texas, Kansas, etc. are about? It allows pharmacists to refuse to sell BC. It allows nurses not to deal with patients who want contraception. It allows BUS DRIVERS to change routes or skip stops because they feel moral superiority over someone who wants contraception or abortions. There are tons more shit, if you are willing to wade through it on Google.

            Furthermore, where have you been that you haven’t heard about employers denying health insurance coverage of contraceptives.? This is not just for religious employers as MSM likes to concentrate on, but ALL employers since the law allows exemption for “religious OR moral reasons”. It passed in Arizona, and there are lawsuits in place to make it happen elsewhere. Read up on the Blunt Amendment. I seriously could go on, but I’ll just say this is why it’s a big, giant deal. It’s not just about Roe, it’s about Griswold now, too.

            And if I were you, I really, really wouldn’t trust a goddam thing that comes out of that man’s mouth. Saying he wouldn’t repeal Roe with SCOTUS appointees, etc. etc. is not a guarantee. See: 6 yrs. worth of flip-flopping.

        2. Though you admit they are probably not all your enemy, you still hate them. It IS your life, but the field IS changing. Definitely not as fast as you’d like, but how are you going to change opinions if the only conversations you have are insults and yelling? 

          However, I’ve found that demonizing the opponent is commonplace on both sides. It’s the easy answer. They are all evil, so I am free to disregard everything they say. I don’t need to consider them as even human. Isn’t THAT what you actually hate?
          Finally, patronizing? Is wanting to see an actual conversation between opponents without Moonbat and Rethuglican thrown around patronizing? Where I’d like to see an actual discussion, where someone presents a side, and then the other addresses the issue brought up and then presents their own? Or, dare I say, when there is no political theme to the subject, keep politics out of the comments.  

          I admit, it was a bit naive trying to bring it up in the comments of Boing Boing, but if not here, where? I know I am a fool; this the internet, what am I thinking?

          But it doesn’t hurt to bring it up, so how would you have me ask?

          1. Yes, sir! I’m sorry for being a woman and thinking that the party trying to make it impossible for me to get even the basic health care that I need is evil.

            SO SORRY, sir!

            I will from now on be nice when the man running for the highest office in the country says that he wants to repeal Roe vs. Wade.

            I’ll now be nice when the man running for the highest office in the nation says that he thinks I am a sinner. Who believes that my having children with a same-sex partner is wrong. Who thinks my being allowed to marry a woman would end civilization as we know it. He believes these things, and yet I”m supposed to be nice.

            All because some patronizing asshole told me to.

            You know, this is some ironic bullshit.

            Apparently it’s perfectly okay for you to be a patronizing asshole, but heaven forbid I call out the assholes trying to take away my rights.

            Do you honestly thing being nice and calm has helped any minority fighting for or fighting to keep their rights?

            ‘Cuz last I checked, those of us who aren’t as privileged as you are, must fight, and fight hard, to keep our basic rights as human beings.

            We also have to fight against being called whores and sinners day in, and day out, by the very people who are supposed to represent us.

            So fucking sorry if I don’t feel very nice about it.

            Even Martin Luther King, Jr. knew when to call evil shit evil.

  3. Left-leaning parties have never had any major presence in Congress. I think the Socialist Party and Farmer-Labor Party won a few elections, but the Socialist Party was denied seats anyway. I would regard the Radical Republicans as center-right, and the modern Democrats and Republicans are definitely on the right.

  4. From a European perspective, we don’t see the US parties as left vs. right at all – the two are so close on almost everything except a few contentious social issues (e.g. abortion), that what they really resemble is two tribes locked in mortal combat for voter loyalty. It’s really not a sensible way to run a country.

    1. Well, certainly from a European perspective, labelling any current members of Congress as “far left” seems a trifle bizarre.

      1.  Actually, from an American history perspective, labeling any current members of Congress as “far Left” seems a trifle bizarre.

      2. From a European perspective, wouldn’t labelling any current member of US congress as “centre right” be a trifle bizarre?

    2. From an American perspective, we don’t see European parties as left vs. right at all either, your larger parties seem so similar and would be classified nearly entirely as far left here except for the few nationalists you have thrown into the mix which don’t even map onto our political spectrum.

      1. No. Their political parties [such as Nulab] support hierarchy and authoritarianism – if not as much as our political parties do – and that makes their political parties right-wing.

          1. Only if everyone including you supports hierarchy and authoritarianism except me.

            I think it’s more likely that there’s a difference between everyone and that subset that runs governments, corporations, etc.

          1. I don’t know their policies. Are they working to end poverty, exploitation, and the marginalization of minorities? Are they working to end police brutality? Are they stopping neoliberalism? Are they having significant success, on a continental scale, with these things?

      2. How don’t nationalists map onto the US political spectrum?  There’s virulent, reactionary right-wing nationalism all over the US.

        Also, if you think Europe’s major parties are “far left” it just goes to show USians have lost all concept of what “far left” actually means.

    1. If you wish to study a granfalloon/Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

      You of all people should know that.

  5. Beautiful but wrongheaded. I’m really annoyed at the insinuation that the left (whatever that is) and right are equal forces in this country. Or that Obama is on the left.

    1.  I’ve been saying that Obama is arguably to the right of Bush.  The “arguably” part is me being charitable.  I don’t think it’s actually much of an argument.  Obama is to the right of Bush.

  6. I love xkcd and I strongly applaud this marvelous visualization. Indeed, I’ve just shared it with my modern US history course. Thank you for sharing, Cory!


    I STRONGLY disagree with the underlying logic of the ideological labeling used by the political scientists Poole and Rosenthal. I know the cartoonist addresses this. And I sympathize with the cartoonist’s problem: How to characterize leftishness vs. rightishness over two centuries?

    But to characterize the current Senate as having more “far Left” members than at most times in the 20th century? WTF?

    By most measures, and ESPECIALLY by the measure supposedly used by Poole and Rosenthal (economic allegiance), today’s “far Left” Democrats are WELL TO THE RIGHT of mainstream Democrats of almost any period since 1932 and certainly since 1945. That this chart shows the Congress with such a high number of “far Left” Democrats displays a profound lack of historical knowledge by Poole and Rosenthal. The real story of the past thirty years is the remarkable shrinking of our political spectrum on the left, and in the Republican center. That has to show up on any map of ideology over time.

  7. Perhaps the graph wasn’t complex enough.  Perhaps it should be six miles long, in eleven dimensions, and include the full text of every bill ever drafted.  Except then somebody would complain that Democrats aren’t really Left/Up/Charm/Strange/Cold/Purple at all.

    1. The nice thing about computers is that you can project 3D data plus a time dimension plus allow controls for which data is being displayed, so you can actually do all that stuff. The shifting positions of parties could make a DNA-looking graph in 3D.

      I get that he want’s to make the graph in the Minard style (or HistoryShots style) but the flow arcs only serve to confuse things visually. Congresspeople only come from one place (not Congress) and go to one place (not Congress) so you don’t need them. Just by showing the number of each affiliation for each term you know how many of each affiliation was added or subtracted from the previous term.

    2. From a practical perspective the graph is fine, because members of Congress collapse into one of two states when observed.

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