What Happened to the Center?

There once was a time when American politicians ran to the left or right to capture their party’s nomination and then quickly pivoted to the center to win a general election. No more. Now the whole game is about turning out the base, not convincing undecided voters.

A defensible theory is that it all started in 2004. On the evening of election day George W. Bush seemed poised to go down to defeat. Photos of he and his family in the White House watching the returns showed a grim scene. John Kerry, his challenger, was said to be working on his victory speech. Turnout was higher than expected, which conventional wisdom said would benefit Democrat Kerry.

Then a funny thing happened. It turned out that Bush’s novel strategy, conceived by Karl Rove, was working. Rather than move to the center for the general election, Bush continued hard right. His strong conservative positions combined with stealth organizing by Rove, much of it in big evangelical churches, meant that much of that higher-than-expected turnout was voting for him.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Democrats, though they didn’t pursue it with the same vigor as the GOP. Republicans got a booster shot of the Rove theory when they coopted the tea party movement in 2010. That set the stage for Donald Trump six years later. By swallowing the tea party whole the Republicans became what they ate. Now, any compromise, any position that wasn’t lock step with Trump was seen as blasphemy. The other side wasn’t just wrong; they were evil.

For their part, liberals were slower to take up the same game. Barack Obama ran on a message of “hope” that he used so skillfully that anyone could pour their own meaning into it. More ideological Democrats went along with it because they couldn’t deny the historical power of having the first Black president and because his organization and political smarts made him a better bet for reelection than any challenger. But when Obama was done, the surprise success of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries suggested that liberals were done playing nice. They were looking for the same kind of hard edge that the other side had.

It wasn’t just Sanders’ proposals to tax the rich and give to the less rich, but his overall attack on “the one percent” that endeared him to the left. Just as the Republican Party had annexed the tea party, Bernie Sanders had adopted the Occupy Wall Street movement, though the movement stopped short of taking over the party altogether. Still, it was lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, fueled in large part by the left’s inability to get Sanders the nomination, that did her in.

Scissored into all that is extreme partisan gerrymandering, done mostly by Republican legislatures. The Democrats got creamed in the worst election possible — 2010 when legislatures and governors that would draw district boundaries were elected. Using the latest technology and unencumbered by any sense of fairness, legislatures drew wickedly effective maps. What that meant was that all but a handful of legislators had nothing to worry about from the other side. There was no need to move to the center. In fact, moderating one’s positions could get you a primary challenger who was more orthodox.

Layer on news sources and feeds tailored to reenforce your existing world view and you’ve got a recipe for the extreme polarization we face today.

Is there any way out? Are there solutions? I think so. I hope so. That’s what this blog and this whole site is about. This is a place where writers, politicians, strategists and others can come to float and debate ideas to get us back to the middle, back to a more unified, less contentious society.

I don’t claim to have the answers. What I know is that there is no more pressing conversation to be had right now.

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