1127: Congress

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
(Political ideologies)
Line 4: Line 4:
| title    = Congress
| title    = Congress
| image    = congress.png
| image    = congress.png
| imagesize =
| titletext = It'd be great if some news network started featuring partisan hack talking heads who were all Federalists and Jacksonians, just to see how long it took us to catch on.
| titletext = It'd be great if some news network started featuring partisan hack talking heads who were all Federalists and Jacksonians, just to see how long it took us to catch on.

Revision as of 02:25, 5 March 2013

It'd be great if some news network started featuring partisan hack talking heads who were all Federalists and Jacksonians, just to see how long it took us to catch on.
Title text: It'd be great if some news network started featuring partisan hack talking heads who were all Federalists and Jacksonians, just to see how long it took us to catch on.

Click the date above the comic to go to the xkcd page, and there is a link to the much larger version. Go find something interesting, don't worry, the wiki will still be here.


It appears that the upcoming 2012 election has put Randall into a political state of mind, as this is the second comic in a few weeks that has dealt with political history (1122: Electoral Precedent). As with that comic, this comic goes through the entire history of the U.S. Federal Government. Also notably, Randall makes a number of observations that are akin to the type of observations Randall denounces in 1122 (e.g. for 1928, Randall notes that no Republican has since won the presidency without a Nixon or a Bush on the ticket).

U.S. Federal Government

In the U.S. Federal Government, one of the checks and balances is a bicameral United States Congress, which consists of two "houses": the Senate, its "upper" house; and the House of Representatives ("the House"), its "lower house". The Senate consists of 2 senators elected from each state (thus 100 total), while the House consists of 435 voting representatives (a number decided upon in 1911 by law) whose apportionment is split between the states proportional to their population; although each state gets at least one (the House also has non-voting representatives from unincorporated territories like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia). Every ten years, the House is reapportioned based on the latest census. The most populous state as of 2012 is California which has 53 seats in the House. Senators serve 6-year terms with elections held every 2 years for one-third of the seats. Members of the House (called Representatives or Congressmen/women) serve 2-year terms with all of the seats contested every 2 years.

In order for a bill to become a law, it must be passed by both the House and the Senate. In a way, this theoretically ensures that the bill is supported both by the majority of states (the Senate), and the majority of the population (the House). The President may then sign the bill into law, he may "veto" the bill, or he may do nothing, in which case it becomes a law if and only if Congress is in session after a waiting period of 10 days (not including Sundays).

Political ideologies

In politics, there is a scale that represents the political beliefs of a politician. The scale goes from "left" to "right" of "center" - which generally describes a balancing point of beliefs (sometimes called "left-wing" or "right-wing").

The "left" is a general belief in social justice, and is sometimes associated with socialism. Modern left-wingers generally mandate equality, and support policies like welfare and government-subsidized healthcare. This trends toward having a larger federal government. In the U.S., "liberal" is a term often used to denote left-leaning tendencies.

The "right" generally believe in conserving the social and economic status quo, which is often termed conservative. This trends towards having less regulation and thereby a smaller federal government. The goal is to keep the nation stable, and reducing the interference by the government with a person's wealth. This ostensibly means lower taxes, because the government does not provide as much.

Politicians typically align themselves into groups of similar beliefs and positions called "parties". In the U.S., there have generally been two dominant parties (although there have been times where three or more parties have shared roughly equal influence and support. In today's politics (which is apparently known as the fifth era of political parties, or Fifth Party System, as noted on the outside edges of the comic) of the two current primary U.S. political parties, the Democrats are the left-leaning party, and the Republicans are the right-leaning party. The dominant parties are generally considered "moderate" in their left- or right-wing leanings, as either party appears to requires the support of a majority (or a few percent under) of voters to win In actuality a process called gerrymandering where election boundaries are redrawn to allow a political advantage to the party currently in power. Thus a popular majority state wide or any ratio of votes to representatives will not nescisarily be reflected in delegates awarded. An example being the republicans REDMAP 2012 report ([1]y) Smaller parties often run candidates with more extreme views, but such candidates rarely win, due to a more limited number of possible supporters ensuring that even a relatively large minority would have zero chance of representation. (see Duverger's law).

The comic

The comic effectively consists of three separate charts: The left- and right-hand charts are the main charts; they represent the Senate and House respectively, and purport to show the left- and right-wing leanings of each legislature through U.S. history. There is a legend on the right that sets out fairly clearly how the charts work, but basically Randall has split each wing into three levels including the very moderate or "Center" right or left, and the more extreme or "Far" right or left, as well as the average left and right, without prefix. A dotted yellow line represented the balance of power in each legislature, and white lines represent the leanings of certain notable people including presidents.

Some presidents are not indicated, because they were never senators or congressmen (most of these were state Governors, such as Clinton, Bush and 2012 candidate Mitt Romney). As may be noted from the chart, Barack Obama is considered "left" while Paul Ryan is considered "far right". It's also notable that the "center right" ideology appears to be completely eradicated from the House and is waning in the Senate (although a similar trend is shown around 1900 with the centrists making a comeback thereafter.

On either side of these charts, there are descriptions or explanations for expansions and contractions of each ideological group.

The center chart appears to primarily act as a timeline. Each president is listed with their leanings indicated by a left or right arrow. Wars are shaded in grey. Other notable events are also indicated. On either side of the center chart (although somewhat mixed in with the aforementioned Senate/House explanations), there are also references to the primary parties of each era showing how they evolved (left-leaning parties on the left, and right-leaning parties on the right).

Finally, there's a little extra commentary on the right side, below the legend.


A history of
The United States Congress
Partisan and ideological makeup
[The comic is divided into three massive sections, SENATE, PRESIDENCIES, and HOUSE. Timelines run backwards down the page between each section. In the HOUSE and SENATE sections, shifting, curving red and blue areas of different brightness illustrate the shifting balance of power between "Members of Left-Leaning Parties" and "Members of Right-Leaning Parties". Under PRESIDENCIES, different administrations are labeled and wars are shaded in gray. There are notes throughout all sections.]
[There are additional notes on the right.]
[Square containing ribbons of color merging upwards with larger areas]: Branches join in when new members enter Congress and cause an ideological bloc to grow. (Note: If the new member is elected as another retires from the same ideological bloc, no change is shown.)
[Square containing ribbons of color splitting off from larger areas]: Branches split off when members leave Congress, causing their ideological bloc to shrink. (Note: If the new member is elected as another retires from the same ideological bloc, no change is shown.)
[Square showing yellow dotted line crossing from red to blue area]: The yellow line marks the midpoint, which indicates which side has control of the chamber.
[Square in which curve briefly separates from blue area]: If a bloc loses members in one election and gains them in the next, the exiting stream may rejoin. This does not necessarily mean the same people returned.
[Square showing white dashed line labeled Lyndon Johnson on top of ribbon merging with main area]: Future (and past) US Presidents who served in Congress are shown with white dashed lines. Other noteworthy members are shown with thin solid lines.
[Square in which tinted area marked "Whig" sits over mix of red and blue areas]: Tinted white outlines mark the approximate membership of some of the smaller political parties.
Each member of Congress is assigned to an ideological category using DW-NOMINATE, a statistical system created by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. This system rates each member of Congress's ideological position position [sic] based on their votes.
DW-NOMINATE is purely mathematical and involves no judgement on the content of bills. Instead, members of Congress are placed on a spectrum based on how consistently they vote together.
While people argue that ideology is many-dimensional, Poole and Rosenthal found that nearly all Congressional voting behavior - especially in the modern era - can be accurately predicted by using just one ideological variable.
This variable turns out to roughly correspond to position on the classic economic liberal/conservative spectrum.
Because members of Congress have served in overlapping terms with past members in a chain back to the first Congress, the system allows comparison of ideology across time - even accounting for individual members' ideological drift. (Note: Scores are comparable across time but not between chambers.)
For more detail, see Poole and Rosenthal's website, voteview.com.
comment.png add a comment! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


Being a stupidly over political (please don't ask me here, this is an xkcd wiki not reddit) kinda guy, this one really interests me. Another one of those amazing visualizations of real-world facts xkcd is so great at. I have no idea what one might write for an explanation that would be useful. Everything is explained in pretty thorough fashion right on the panel... Renegade4dio (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Well, there's always the transcript for us to waste time work on. Davidy22 (talk) 12:36, 29 October 2012 (UTC)

The first thing that is missing is the explanation why there are two houses. Why never three or four? I get why monarchy only had advisors but opposition varied with whichever branch of the family had most to lose. So there was a never ending and closely focussed stream of opposition, albeit short-lived if unsuccessful. I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 18:29, 15 January 2015 (UTC)

Congress as check

Perhaps a pedantic point, but I couldn't leave the description describing Congress as simply a check on the president. That would imply that the president has free reign (literally) and that Congress only acts (or, more often, doesn't act) to veto the president. That is a much more accurate description of the president's role in legislation (or of a pre-modern English Parliament). (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)


There's a typo on the right-hand side of the comic around 1952 - "Other than these few years after the war; the House [was] under control Democratic control for the entire period ...". The "was" is missing. TheHYPO (talk) 15:27, 29 October 2012 (UTC)

definition of conservative is pejorative

Conservatives are not interested in preserving wealth amongst those who have it - they are interested in creating as many opportunities to create wealth as possible by reducing unwanted government regulation and returning to constitutional limitations (aka 10th ammendment) on Federal power. A different view of liberty and rights than what liberals maintain, but highly supported - I find your definition to be highly pejorative. Ghaller825 (talk) 18:59, 29 October 2012 (UTC)

That went completely over my head, but you're entirely welcome to change it if the definition in the article bothers you. Davidy22(talk) 09:16, 30 October 2012 (UTC)
Perhaps the segment could be changed to say "conservatives believe the government should not interfere with a person's wealth", or something very similar. The resistence to government involvement seems to be more consistent across the various degrees of the modern conservative movement. I'll admit that my suggested statement is also false, because almost everyone believes there should be some amount of taxes, and taxes affect wealth. However, it should be more palatable to the political ideology.
I understand your offense, Ghaller. On the other hand, the current phrasing using "making wealth" is also a loaded term, as many factory workers would feel that they are "the ones who make it" more than the CEOs, but are certainly not getting more money. I'm not saying I agree with that perspective, just that it's a suggestive statement, and this is not the forum to have an endless debate over it. The unsigned comment above me has the best compromise in my opinion, so I will implement it. - jerodast (talk) 18:12, 22 December 2012 (UTC)

I notice the following: (1) George H.W. Bush is shown as serving in the Senate. He never made it to the Senate, just the House. (2) Abraham Lincoln appears to be shown as serving in the House for about seven years. He only was there for one term (two years). -- 02:18, 30 October 2012 (UTC)

It also lists John A. Garfield in the House from 1862 until his election -- it is James A Garfield, not John.

It lists Abraham Lincoln (and the Republican Party of Lincoln's time in general) as right-leaning, even though it's widely accepted that the Republicans of that era (whose base was made up mostly of Northern abolitionists) were the more liberal party, and the Democrats (whose base was comprised in large part by Southern slave-owners) the more conservative. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Definition of Liberal

While in the US, liberal might mean left-wing, in the UK it's pretty central and in Australia it's right-wing. Go figure.--Joe Green (talk) 04:23, 30 October 2012 (UTC)

Classical liberalism [2] is very different from American liberalism; Americans would recognize it more as Libertarianism. --Prooffreader (talk) 09:12, 30 October 2012 (UTC)

The socialists are well-known for hijacking the good-sounding misleading names. Such as "liberal" in America or "bolshevik" (a made-up word meaning literally "majoritan", a member of majority) in Russia. 00:10, 24 January 2014 (UTC)


In the "How Ideology Is Calculated" section, I note "acccounting".--Joe Green (talk) 04:23, 30 October 2012 (UTC)


He didn't exactly say that Conservatives are interested in preserving wealth amongst those who have it; I think the implication is that "if you made it, you should get to keep it" (or as much of it as possible, hence lower taxes). One consequence of this is that the distribution of wealth tends to remain static, in that the rich stay rich and the poor stay (relatively) poorer. Whether or not that consequence is an intentional one is perhaps in the eye of the pejoratively-inclined beholder :-)--Joe Green (talk) 04:30, 30 October 2012 (UTC)

I made an edit to that effect, but it appears to have been wiped out by another editor calling it "right-wing trolling". If you would like to try re-wording it, please do. lcarsos (talk) 05:05, 30 October 2012 (UTC)
By changing just a little bit I think I removed most of the negative connotation.Bugefun (talk) 05:11, 31 October 2012 (UTC)

Kind of unrelated but the diagram to me looks sort of like arteries and veins, with the red and blue. And the branches look like how they branch off the heart and stuff. Bugefun (talk) 05:10, 31 October 2012 (UTC)

Red inside blue and vice versa

What do the red strands inside the blue section and the blue strands inside the red section represent? It doesn't seem to be explained anywhere. 14:15, 31 October 2012 (UTC)

Red on the blue side represents "Conservative Democrats" and Blue on the red side represents "Liberal Republicans". Confusing a bit, but so are both those political terms (lol). It is stated (in small text) on the top right diagram of the comic--Dangerkeith3000 (talk) 14:53, 31 October 2012 (UTC)
Left vs right - or why this comic is stupid

The traditional definition of left vs right (people attribute all sorts of things to it these days) is the support of change (hence the names progressives vs conservatives, or radicals vs reactionaries). The terminology comes from France where those that advocated reforms to government sat on the left of the chamber and those that wanted to do such things as restore the monarchy sat on the right. Your traditional Burkian conservative (smidgen to the right of the centre) would accept change is inevitable, but must be controlled. To the right of that people that want to maintain the status quo, further right people that want to go back to some "better time". To the left you get the, let change happen as it comes, further left lets make change a "good thing", to the furthest left "lets force change". A large part of the Marxist philosophy is that not only is communism desirable, but inevitable as according to Marx that is the final destination of all societies. Now to my point. Over time the parties have switched sides and often will be left on one issue and right on another. Often the parties themselves were divided (look at the civil rights act's passage) To simply say Democratic Party has always been left and the Republicans have always been is such a gross simplification that is renders the whole image a farce. 01:07, 8 November 2012 (UTC)

What can we learn from this?
I've learned that our congress (and law in general) is too complex. We are tying to keep outdated laws relevant by using an endless series of exceptions (legally called amendments). I hope someday we will be able to scrap the whole thing and simplify our laws so that our children do not have to spend up to a quarter of their lives learning our mistakes. XKCD, please help us simplify something like law so you don't have to waste your time visualizing something as broken as our understanding of it. - e-inspired 18:36, 27 February 2013 (UTC)
Personal tools


It seems you are using noscript, which is stopping our project wonderful ads from working. Explain xkcd uses ads to pay for bandwidth, and we manually approve all our advertisers, and our ads are restricted to unobtrusive images and slow animated GIFs. If you found this site helpful, please consider whitelisting us.

Want to advertise with us, or donate to us with Paypal or Bitcoin?