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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is the Center Still Vital?

This item by TDS Contributor and Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow and managing editor Lee Drutman is cross-posted from Progressive Fix.
Over at Third Way, Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck have published a new analysis about the role of moderates in American politics, “The Still-Vital Center: Moderates, Democrats, and the Renewal of American Politics.” It’s a keen paper, and I generally suspect they are right in their basic thesis: American government would work a whole lot better if there were more moderates running the place and that self-identified moderates have a more coherent worldview than many critics think.
Galston and Kamarck have pulled together some solid survey data on moderates, enough to conclude that, “moderates have mixed opinions about the overall stances of the two parties.” They’re more like Democrats on social issues, a little more like Republicans on foreign policy, and about split on economic policy.
But in general, moderates are more likely to support Democrats. Since 1980, the U.S. electorate has hovered around 20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, and 47 percent moderate. This means that Democrats need moderates more, since liberals make up only one-fifth of voters. Conservatives outnumber liberals by a substantial amount, so Republicans need fewer moderates to establish a winning coalition. This is the kind of simple math that liberals keep forgetting. Obama, like every Democrat before him, couldn’t have won without strong support among moderates.
But there’s also a puzzle here, and one that continues to frustrate centrists: If moderates consistently represent almost half of the electorate, why are there so few moderate representatives, and why is our politics so polarized?
Galston and Kamarck put a lot of emphasis on primary elections as a culprit, since they are generally low-turnout affairs, in which extremist candidates who are able to mobilize a small but loyal following can win. (Witness Christine O’Donnell winning Delaware’s Republican primary with 30,561 votes in a state of 900,000 people).
They advocate for open primaries so that voters from both parties can participate, which might, as they write, “open up the possibility that moderate and compromise might be rewarded rather than punished.” By all means! But already half of the states do this, and I’ve yet to see any systemic evidence that states with closed primaries turnout candidates any more extremist. Moreover, Alan Abramowitz has made the case that primary voters are actually not that different from general election across a number of ideological indicators.
But the ability of ideologues to triumph in primaries points to a larger problem: that moderate voters tend to be the least engaged and least educated part of the electorate. This extends as well to general campaign work, contributions, and even just talking to other people about politics.
In Abramowitz’s recent book The Disappearing Center (reviewed here by me), he shows that 56 percent of strong liberal or conservatives reported being politically engaged in 2004, as compared to 36 percent of those who “lean” liberal or conservative, and just 20 percent of those who say they are moderate, or of no ideology. And according to National Election Studies data, 43 percent of self-identified conservatives had a college degree, 32 percent of self-identified liberals had a college degree, but only 18 percent of moderates had a college degree. This is something centrists are going to have to grapple with.
In Abramowitz’s story, the plight of the moderates is mostly a story about less-educated, less-engaged citizens who don’t know or care enough about politics to pick a side. Were they to get wealthy and educated, like the partisans, they would presumably then know enough to pick one of the two distinct teams in American politics. But lacking the means or the will to pick a side, they call themselves moderate, feel disengaged and disenchanted by politics, and try to get on with the business of making a living.

However, I’m not sure about this. Have political moderates instead become less engaged out of frustration with extremism? Feeling that they have nobody in politics who speaks for them, have they simply stopped bothering? Galston and Kamarck come down on the side that moderates are becoming more frustrated as parties have become more ideological. My hunch is that they’re right, though it would be hard to prove this.
For my money, I think probably the best thing we could do to empower moderates would be to reduce obstacles to voting by supporting reforms such as vote-by-mail, Internet voting, same-day-registration, and moving Election Day to the weekend (the vast majority of countries hold elections on Sundays). In many respects, our current voting system effectively privileges the most engaged partisans and those with the most time on their hands, while disenfranchising more moderate voters for whom politics is, unfortunately, often less of a priority. Getting more moderates voting would force candidates to pay more attention to them and result in more moderate candidates. Additionally, instant runoff voting could enable centrist and independent candidates to run for office without worrying about being dismissed as spoilers.
Galston and Kamarck also propose “real redistricting reform” (hard to argue with the wisdom of non-partisan commissions drawing lines, though the fact that polarization extends to the Senate suggests there’s more than gerrymandering at work here), and a highly intriguing proposal that becoming Speaker of the House or Majority Leader of the Senate should require 60 percent support from the entire body (That’s 261 votes in the House, for those of you keeping score at home). This would be quite a change from the current approach, in which the leader is selected by only the majority party, and thus is only responsive to the majority party. But with a 60 percent super-majority, any leader would have to be able to draw at least some support from the opposing party.
I suspect this would have a minimal effect in the Senate, which is already pulled towards moderation by the 60-vote threshold to get anything done.
But could it change the way the House works? Galston and Kamarck argue that “super-majorities guarantee ownership by both political parties.” I guess it depends how the public perceives it. My hunch is that the majority party will still mostly get the blame or the credit, since the public doesn’t really get the concept of super-majorities (think how confusing the filibuster is to your average voter).
Moreover, given how hard it is for even a single party leader to keep the troops who are supposedly on the same team all marching in the same direction, wouldn’t it be even harder to have to steer a larger and more internally divisive army without mutiny? But who knows? Maybe it could work. It deserves more thought.
The bigger problem is that in some respects, the problems of polarization are built into politics: there is a tendency for those who have the most extreme views to care the most deeply, simply because they perceive the most at stake in the outcomes. And particularly in the current political environment, there is a tendency for those most interested in politics to be pulled to the extremes, in part because political discourse offers little guidance for those seeking a middle course – there is a lot more intellectual sustenance and solidarity on both poles.
But obviously, there have been periods in American politics (most recently the 1950s and 1960s) in which there was a Vital Center. So what happened?
The short version is that several demographic changes led to political sorting, which reduced moderating pressures on candidates. African-Americans migrated to the North and as a result became a more important political constituency. Civil Rights reforms alienated Southern Democrats, freeing the Democrats of their conservative wing and making their caucus more liberal. New Southern Republicans, plus the rise of the conservative Sunbelt, shifted the Republican center of gravity, as did the political awakening of evangelicals.
The decline of machine politics played a role. Without party machines to turn out votes and with new sprawling suburban districts to cover, candidates turned instead to special interests and ideological believers who were willing to volunteer and give money because they felt so strongly. A new political class that cared more about being right than actually winning took over the party mechanisms, creating the perfect breeding ground for ideological candidates.
Meanwhile, as politics became more partisan, it also became nastier. Because the activists who increasingly control the party now feel more is at stake, they became more aggressive – a feedback loop that has left much wreckage in its wake.
What Galston and Kamarck provide is a starting point back from the wreckage: evidence for a fundamentally moderate public, and a distinct “moderate” worldview. (For even more on this, it’s also worth reading Disconnect by Morris Fiorina. Fiorina’s basic thesis is that “the orientation [of the public] is more pragmatic. Far more people position themselves on the issues on a case-by-case basis rather than deduce their specific positions from some abstract principle ….Those who ostensibly represent the American public take positions that collectively do not provide an accurate representation of the public.”)
The big question is how to give moderates a more active role in politics. I suspect there is a bit more work to be done here in giving moderates more intellectual sustenance than they have traditionally received, and providing leadership and discourse that supports moderation as vital centrism rather than mushy compromise, and that fundamentally engages moderates. This analysis is a great place to start.

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