Stein variational gradient descent (SVGD) is a deterministic inference algorithm that evolves a set of particles to fit a target distribution. Despite its computational efficiency, SVGD often underestimates the variance of the target distribution in high dimensions. In this work we attempt to explain the variance collapse in SVGD. On the qualitative side, we compare the SVGD update with gradient descent on the maximum mean discrepancy (MMD) objective; we observe that the variance collapse phenomenon relates to the bias from deterministic updates present in the "driving force" of SVGD, and empirically verify that removal of such bias leads to more accurate variance estimation. On the quantitative side, we demonstrate that the variance collapse of SVGD can be accurately predicted in the proportional asymptotic limit, i.e., when the number of particles $n$ and dimensions $d$ diverge at the same rate. In particular, for learning high-dimensional isotropic Gaussians, we derive the exact equilibrium variance for both SVGD and MMD-descent under certain near-orthogonality assumption on the converged particles, and confirm that SVGD suffers from the "curse of dimensionality".