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.)
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.