Something I see cited, both approvingly by Democrats seeking to reach out to the Left and disapprovingly by conservative media outlets seeking to fearmonger about her selection, is that Kamala Harris has “the farthest-left voting record of her colleagues,” to quote The Federalist. But is it true?
The first thing one should do is look at the source people are using to back up their claim. Thankfully, for once, both conservative and liberal outlets are using the exact same source. That makes things easy!
These sources come from GovTrack.us, a government transparency website that looks at the legislative accomplishments and voting records of sitting congresspeople. GovTrack is a long-running website that has a solid reputation as far as I’m aware. They post their sources, make note of how they calculate the ideological scores for their ratings, and provide data-driven analysis of various candidates. All seems on the up-and-up.
And they do indeed say that in 2019, Harris was “the most liberal senator.” People aren’t making that up. So why does Harris have a reputation as a center-right figure to many activists working around the Democratic Party?
Let’s start by looking at how they measure ideology.
Our unique ideology analysis assigns a score to Members of Congress according to their legislative behavior by how similar the pattern of bills and resolutions they cosponsor are to other Members of Congress. The score can be interpreted as a conservative—liberal scale, although of course it only takes into account a small aspect of reality.From GovTrack.us
You might notice up front that there are a couple things here. First, in contrast to their headline, the language used in their methodology is… more measured. It can be interpreted on that scale, but isn’t really. Second, if you look deeper, they are even more robust in their defense that this is not actually a measurement of ideology, it merely corresponds with ideology, as they mention below:
In fact, there’s no guarantee that the scores have anything to do with liberal- or conversative-ness or any other standard frame for political ideology. All it tells us is how to spread Members of Congress out along a spectrum in a way that explains their record of cosponsorship.From GovTrack.us
The way that GovTrack breaks down the ideological scores involves, essentially, looking at how many bills a certain congressperson sponsors or cosponsors. Essentially: Harris’ sponsorship of bills are very in line with that of the Democratic Party on the whole. This seems to be supported by another stat on her ‘report card‘ on GovTrack: She joined fewer bipartisan bills than any other Senate Democrat.
In effect, what GovTrack is testing for is less ideology and more ideological loyalty. Harris is very well-positioned and thoughtful about how she supports the issues that the Democratic Party agrees on. She sponsors and cosponsors a lot of bills within the Party’s mainstream. But as we’ve talked about before, the Left and the Democratic Party are two very different things.
So, to return to the quote above, does Harris have “the farthest-left voting record of her colleagues?” No. She’s solidly in the Democratic Party mainstream, which is to say, she is a relatively liberal, slightly progressive Senator. She is slightly to the left of many of her Senate counterparts — but only slightly, and she appears to fundamentally be a pragmatist.
When people in the media talk about ideology, always remember to check how they’re measuring that ideology. GovTrack does great work, but they are measuring sponsorship of voting records, and because of that, they run into the rather extreme limits of ideological representation in the Senate.