There Is No “Political Center” In Modern America
An entirely false but constantly sold view of the American electorate
In an April 2016 piece, in the middle of the Democratic primary, I wrote this about modern independent voters and the upcoming general election:
If you look at the swell of new voters in both parties, the increase is for the “change” candidate, not the one promising to retain and refresh the status-quo. The presidential candidate who wins this election will be the one who best appeals to the new “radical independent”…
Today’s independents aren’t “moderates” who want conventional, faux-centrist policies and less “gridlock.” Political partisans want less gridlock around issues of disagreement, because it advances individual party agendas and careers in addition to those issues. But in the main and with a few important exceptions — women’s health and rights, racial justice, gun violence — both parties have agreed and cooperated on broad policy goals.
Leaders of both parties, for example, broadly believe in the current military style of policing. Both believe in a justice system that coerces defendants into plea bargains, guilty or innocent. Both believe in the “importance of Wall Street to the economy” and that big financial institutions should be defended, not broken up. Both parties have offered and enacted a long and strong diet of lower taxes, spending austerity, war and more war. We’ve had these policies, delivered in a fully bipartisan way, for decades….
Today’s independents, in contrast, are done with that.
This led to a prediction that “to win, Clinton must win Sanders independents. If she fails, she is likely to lose. The problem for Clinton is, how to do that.”
And indeed, Clinton did lose.
There’s more to say, obviously, about why Clinton lost. But it’s certainly true that, if 2016 were not a “change year” election, Clinton would have won by a mile. For example, if Clinton were running for a second term in 2012 instead of Obama, she’d have had no problem beating the Republican. It’s only in a “change year” election — 2008, for example — that a status quo candidate has trouble against a “change” candidate; and indeed, Clinton was defeated by that year’s “change” candidate, Barack Obama.
In 2016, instead of sailing to victory Clinton was nosed out in a squeaker. Even if that win was stolen it could only have been stolen if it were close. To use a football analogy, the refs can’t throw the game to your opponent if you’re winning by four touchdowns. In a hostile stadium with hostile refs, best not be barely ahead with two minutes to go.
In the Center of Nowhere
Confirmation of part of this analysis — that Clinton’s attempt to win by wooing “centrist” voters sloshing undecidely between the parties was an error — comes from a 2016 book, Democracy for Realists, by political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen. As Eric Levitz writes in a recent New York Magazine article,
“The notion that there is an easily identifiable, median political ideology in America derives from the ‘spatial model’ [i.e., linear] of the electorate, which first gained prominence in the middle of the 20th century.”
This “spacial model” of the electorate should be familiar to every American, since it’s sold by every mainstream media outlet. This model posits a single line of policy choices — arrayed in just two dimensions from “left” to “right” — with voters arrayed somewhere along it as well. Thus there are “left” policy choices, “right” policy choices, and voters in a kind of bell-shaped curve arrayed along it as well. “Left” voters prefer “left” policies, “right” voters prefer “right” policies, with the vast majority of voters somewhere in the middle.
Bartels and Achen, as quoted by Levitz, describe the linear analogy this way (my emphasis):
[T]he political “space” consists of a single ideological dimension on which feasible policies are arrayed from left to right. Each voter is represented by an ideal point along this dimension reflecting the policy she prefers to all others. Each party is represented by a platform reflecting the policy it will enact if elected. Voters are assumed to maximize their ideological satisfaction with the election outcome by voting for the parties closest to them on the ideological dimension, Parties are assumed to maximize their expected payoff from office-holding by choosing the platforms most likely to get them elected.
[T]his framework is sufficient to derive a striking and substantively important prediction: both parties will adopt identical platforms corresponding to the median of the distribution of voters’ ideal points.
In other words, if it is assumed that most voters are on the “left,” the party to the “right” will drift that way. If it is assumed most voters are on the “right,” the “left” party will similarly move. And if voters are in the “center,” both parties will tend to move there with them.
What Bartels and Achen discovered was something that should have been obvious from the start — that this is just not the case. What they discovered is that there is no political “center” in modern America.
As Levitz writes:
A 2014 study from Berkeley political scientists David Broockman and Douglas Ahler surveyed voters on 13 policy issues — offering them seven different positions to choose from on each, ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. On only two of those issues — gay rights and the environment — was the centrist position the most common one. On marijuana, the most popular policy was full legalization; on immigration, the most widely favored proposal was “the immediate roundup and deportation of all undocumented immigrants and an outright moratorium on all immigration until the border is proven secure”; and on taxes, the most popular option was to increase the rate on income above $250,000 by more than 5 percent. Meanwhile, establishing a maximum annual income of $1 million (by taxing all income above that at 100 percent) was the third most common choice, boasting four times more support than the national Republican Party’s platform on taxation.
When pundits implore Democrats not to abandon the center, they do not typically mean that the party should embrace legal weed, much higher taxes on the rich, and mass deportation. More often, such pundits call on Team Blue to embrace a combination of moderate fiscal conservatism, a cosmopolitan attitude toward globalization, and moderate social liberalism — in short, to become the party of Michael Bloomberg (minus, perhaps, the enthusiasm for nanny-state public-health regulations). The former New York mayor is routinely referred to as a centrist in the mainstream press, despite the fact that his policy commitments — support for Social Security cuts, Wall Street deregulation, mass immigration, and marriage equality — when taken together, put him at the fringes of American public opinion[.]
Note that this analysis is multi-dimensional. Even a two-dimensional representation couldn’t do it justice.
Why Do Democrats Pursue Non-Existent “Centrist” Voters?
If there are no voters in the political “center,” a strategy based on winning them is likely to fail. So why pursue them? Perhaps because voters aren’t what the Democratic Party – or either American political party these days – is pursuing. Perhaps it’s because what both parties are actually pursuing – is money.
Levitz seems to agree. In his article he quotes David Broockman, the study’s co-author, as saying this in an interview:
When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want …
Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.
From this we can easily draw three conclusions:
- The only “center” in modern American politics consists of policies the people who finance elections want to see enacted.
- The mainstream media and both political parties regularly labels these policies “centrist.”
- The way to be called “moderate” by the mainstream press is to advocate for “centrist” policies.
And yet, one can easily predict a series of “change year” elections stretching far into the future in which “centrist” candidates will fail again and again, since America’s economic problems show no signs of being fixed anytime soon.
This is not because the means of fixing those problems don’t exist, though, and aren’t readily at hand. Levitz closes by saying:
On most of these [economic] issues, effective policy responses aren’t unknown — they’re just considered politically untenable. We know how to reduce inequality and eradicate poverty: you redistribute pre-tax income from the rich to the poor. When America expanded the welfare state, its poverty rate went down; when it scaled back the safety net, the opposite occurred. Nordic social democracies devote more resources to propping up the living standards of their most vulnerable citizens than most other countries, and their poverty rates are among the lowest in the world, as a result.
We know how to reduce student debt: You have the government directly subsidize the cost of higher education. And we know to reduce medical costs while achieving universal coverage — you let the state cap reimbursement rates, and subsidize the medical costs of the sick and the poor until everyone can afford basic medical care, (as they do in virtually every other developed nation on Earth). And while we can’t be certain about exactly what it will take to avert ecological catastrophe, we know that the more rapidly we transition our energy infrastructure toward renewable fuels, the better our odds will be.
It just means that voters’ desire to see them fixed will go unfulfilled by any party running a “status quo” candidate.
Radical Independents Are Here to Stay
The day of the “radical independent” is here. Yet by not selling themselves as proponents of economic reform in addition to reform on the numerous “rights” or “identity” issues, the Democratic Party is abandoning the demographic it needs to start winning elections again.
Has anything changed recently with the introduction of the Democrat’s “Better Deal” campaign? Richard Eskow convincingly argues no. It may be time to admit that the reason we have Republicans in power — in a majority of states as well as the federal government — owes less to Vladimir Putin than it does to mainstream Democrats themselves.
Americans have not much ability to “fix” Vladimir Putin. Do American have the ability to “fix” the Democratic Party, to cure it of its need to pursue money instead of voters? Perhaps, but not if the Party doesn’t want to be fixed.