The Middle May Be Bigger Than We Think

In a friendly conversation over a couple of beers the other night, some left-center and right-center friends and I discussed the sad state of the two parties. The Republicans are obsessed with relitigating the 2020 elections while Democrats obsess over various issues of identity, like which bathroom transgender people can use. Meanwhile, the bulk of the American public isn’t interested in any of those things. Polls show that most Americans worry about inflation and the economy in general, crime, immigration and education.

One of my friends lamented the shrinking of the moderate center. I sensed he was actually wrong about that and the very next day came a column by New York Times writer Thomas B. Edsall that bolstered my suspicions. Here’s an excerpt from Edsall’s May 25th post:

(University of Chicago political science professor Anthony) Fowler and his co-authors, on the other hand, contest the view that voters are deeply polarized:

“We find that a large proportion of the American public is neither consistently liberal nor consistently conservative but that this inconsistency is not because their views are simply random or incoherent. Instead, we estimate that many of those who give a mix of liberal and conservative responses hold genuine views in the middle of the same dimension of policy ideology that explains the views of consistent liberals and consistent conservatives.”

There are, Fowler and his collaborators point out, “Many genuine moderates in the American electorate. Nearly three in four survey respondents’ issue positions are well-described by a single left-right dimension, and most of those individuals have centrist views. Furthermore, these genuine moderates are a politically important group. They are highly responsive to the ideologies and qualities of political candidates.”

In an email responding to my inquires, Fowler wrote: “Elites are highly polarized, but members of the general public are not. Of course, there is sorting in the sense that liberals are more likely to identify as Democrats and conservatives are more likely to identify as Republican. So there are differences between the opinions of the average Democrat and the average Republican, but unlike for members of Congress, the distribution of ideology in the American public is unimodal, with most people close to the middle.”

(I added the emphasis in bold above.)

Emmanuel Macron formed a new centrist party in France, which he renamed Renaissance after his reelection this month.

If Fowler has it right then the parties are speaking loudly on behalf of maybe one in four Americans while talking past the rest of us. So, I vote for Democrats not because I necessarily agree all that much with the posture and the priorities of the Democratic Party, but because I won’t touch the Party of Trump. Others hold their noses and vote for Republicans, despite their disdain for Trump, because they think the Democrats are so out of touch with their values and their biggest concerns.

Prof. Fowler’s findings don’t surprise me all that much. The interesting question is what to do about it. Republicans got up to dance with the right-wing populist gorilla and now they’ve got to keep dancing to his tune. The values and policy priorities of Democratic elites — who give money, volunteer in campaigns, work as consultants and in public officials’ offices and are most active on social media — don’t match up with those of even rank-and-file Democrats much less independents. Both parties now try to win, not by capturing the center, but by using some outrage (ginned up or real) to drive their base to the polls. It seems unlikely that either party will abandon that strategy and return to the old formula.

It’s tempting to think about a third party, but of course, the record of third parties in the U.S. is pretty dismal. That is, unless you think about what happened to the Republicans. Because, for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump formed a third party in 2016 and that party has now supplanted what was once the old Republican Party. The party retains the name, but it now stands for totally different things. Free trade was once at the center of the party’s philosophy; now it’s for protectionism. A robust foreign policy to spread liberal democracy — even “nation building” — was once foundational to the party; now it’s isolationist. A party once ruled from corporate boardrooms now attacks some of our most successful corporations for their “wokism.” And a party once constructed around certain principles is now answerable only to the whims and grievances of one man. This is a party that didn’t even bother with a platform at its last convention.

So, one way to look at it is that a third party was formed in 2016 and it quickly shoved one of the two major parties to the sidelines.

We can also look to other Western democracies. The once vital center-left and center-right parties in France and Germany have withered. Emmanuel Macron formed his own centrist party in France and, if he serves his complete second term, he will have governed for a decade there.

My point is that the world is in a lot churn these days and so, what would be thought of as impossible in normal times might be possible now. And, if we could get across the idea of “fusion” we could take care of the argument that a third party would only hand the election to one of the (currently) big two parties. Fusion is a law that could be enacted at the state or Federal level (currently seven states have it, but not Wisconsin) in which the candidate can add up the votes he gets if he’s listed on the ballot for more than one party. So, for example, moderate Republicans and Democrats could run as the candidate of that party plus the third new centrist party and add up the votes they get from both. Assuming the centrists would endorse only one candidate major party candidates might compete to get on the ballot in that column.

Another option is nonpartisan primaries. In this setup the two top vote getters in the primary get on the ballot for the general election. That means that in a very blue district, that would never elect a Republican, a moderate Democrat might go up against a hard-left Democrat and the same could happen in a heavily Republican district. The overall effect should drive politicians to the center even in heavily gerrymandered district.

One way or another we need to find a way to give centrist voters a voice because right now neither party speaks for us.

And along these lines… Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s blistering win over David Perdue was some of the best news I’ve heard all year. Kemp was Donald Trump’s Enemy #1 in a conservative state and yet he won overwhelmingly everywhere in the state. But the related point here is that Perdue ran totally on relitigating Trump’s loss in 2020. People — even Republican primary voters — just don’t care. They’ve moved on and they’ve got more important issues on their minds.

Want to read more from a centrist who won’t apologize for his moderation? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “The Middle May Be Bigger Than We Think

  1. Is it just me or does anyone else find it incredibly hard to imagine Herschel Walker as a United States Senator? I understand that in its bones, Georgia is probably still a fairly red state, but when you combine all the skeletons in his closet – hell, they’re not in his closet, they’re right out in the middle of the street (lying, credible allegations of abuse, etc etc) – along with his utter inability to string together two coherent sentences, won’t even many lean-Republican voters just be embarrassed by the thought of this knucklehead representing them in the United States Senate? It sure seems as though Georgia is going to have several of the most interesting (and important) elections around this November. Besides Walker vs. Warnock (and can you imagine a debate between these two?), there is of course Stacey Abrams and her ability to get out the vote in a rematch with Brian Kemp, and Marcus Flowers trying his best in a very red Congressional District to rid the country of the disease that is Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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    1. “hell, they’re not in his closet, they’re right out in the middle of the street (lying, credible allegations of abuse, etc etc) – along with his utter inability to string together two coherent sentences, won’t even many lean-Republican voters just be embarrassed by the thought of this knucklehead representing them?”

      That sentence could almost just as easily describe Trump, and that’s what I thought prior to the 2016 election, but now all bets are off the table.

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  2. Thank you for this post highlighting practical, actionable steps that could lead us towards better political representation. Improving our democracy is the single most important issue right now.

    Please, other readers, keep thinking of other actionable ideas that will reduce the concentration of political power and give voters choices that can align with their values. Let’s not just complain and wish, let’s act!

    I’m not a centrist, but I’m happy to live under any laws that truly reflect the democratic will of the people even if I don’t agree. Fixing our political process will bring us closer to that goal. People from every political perspective should be able to unite under this goal… unless one doesn’t support democracy and would prefer an dictatorship so long as it is “your side”.

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  3. In my opinion, the biggest problem has been that primaries are now democratic. Although elections in the US should definitely be democratic, there is absolutely nothing in the constitution that states that political parties need to hold democratic elections to decide who they are going to promote as candidates.

    In fact, for the majority of American history, the parties decided who they would put up for the general election without the input of voters. That changed at some point in time, and now party voters decide who will be the general election candidate. On the surface, one would think that more democracy can only be better. However, the current system basically is a double election. First, you need to win your party’s primary. Since only the party’s bases participate in these, candidates need to appeal to the nut jobs in their party. The extremes end up deciding who ends up in the general election. What ends up happening is that general election voters get left with needing to decide between far right wing nut jobs and far left wing nut jobs. The middle gets left out because of the primary system.

    Fortunately, we had an out on the last presidential election and could vote for a relatively normal person in Joe Biden. God forbid that the next presidential election forces voters to decide between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren. What would an average, sane American do under such circumstances?

    That’s how people like Donald Trump end up getting elected. In 2016 he was the second most unelectable person in the U.S. Unfortunately democratic primary voters decided to nominate the most unelectable candidate (Clinton) to oppose him.

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