Does Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 represent the last gasp of an exhausted moderate tradition or does a potentially powerful center lie dormant in our embattled political system?
Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, argues in a series of essays and a book, “Unstable Majorities,” that it is the structure of the two-party system that prevents the center — the moderate majority of American voters — from asserting their dominion over national politics:
Given multiple dimensions of political conflict — economic, cultural, international — it is simply impossible for two internally homogeneous parties to represent the variety of viewpoints present in a large heterogeneous democracy.
Inevitably, Fiorina writes,
Each party bundles issue positions in a way that conflicts with the views of many citizens — most commonly citizens who are economic conservatives and culturally liberal, or economically liberal and culturally conservative, but also internationalist or isolationist-leaning positions layered on top of other divisions.
Fiorina is addressing one of the most important questions in America today: Is there a viable center and can such a center be mobilized to enact widely backed legislative goals with bipartisan support?
This issue is the subject of intense dispute among strategists, scholars and pollsters.
In Fiorina’s view, polarization has been concentrated among “the political class: officeseekers, party officials, donors, activists, partisan media commentators. These are the people who blabber on TV /vent on Facebook/vilify on Twitter/etc.”
This process effectively leaves out “the general public (a.k.a. normal people)” who are “inattentive, uncertain, ambivalent, uninvolved politically, concerned with bread-and-butter issues.”
In support of his position, Fiorina has marshaled data showing that there are large numbers of voters who say that neither party reflects their views; that many of the most polarizing issues — including gay rights, gender equality, abortion and racial equality — rank 19 to 52 points below voters’ top priorities, which are the economy, health care, jobs and Medicare; and that the share of voters who describe themselves as moderate has remained constant since 1974.
In addition, Fiorina cites two studies.
The first, “A Not So Divided America,” conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland for a centrist group, Voice of the People. It found that if you compare “the views of people who live in red Congressional districts or states to those of people who live in blue Congressional districts or states,” on “only 3.6 percent of the questions — 14 out of 388 — did a majority or plurality of those living in red congressional districts/states take a position opposed to that of a majority or plurality of those living in blue districts/states.”
Of those 14, according to the Voice of the People study, 11 concerned “ ‘hot-button’ topics that are famously controversial — gay and lesbian issues, abortion and Second Amendment issues relating to gun ownership.”
According to the study,
In talking to everyday Americans, we have found a large segment of the population whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes. These are people who believe that Americans have more in common than that which divides them. They believe that compromise is necessary in politics, as in other parts of life, and want to see the country come together and solve its problems.
In practice, the study found that polarization is driven in large part by the left flank of the Democratic Party and the right flank of the Republican Party, which together make up roughly a third of the electorate.
The remaining two thirds are
considerably more ideologically flexible than members of other groups. While members of the ‘wing’ groups (on both the left and the right) tend to hold strong and consistent views across a range of political issues, those in the Exhausted Majority tend to deviate significantly in their views from issue to issue.
Not only that,
the wing groups, which often dominate the national conversation, are in fact in considerable isolation in their views on certain topics. For instance, 82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, and 80 percent also view political correctness as an issue. By contrast, only 30 percent of Progressive Activists believe political correctness is a problem.
Fiorina has many allies and many critics in the academic community.
Those in general agreement include Jeannie Suk Gersen, a law professor at Harvard and a contributing writer to The New Yorker, who wrote in an email:
The fact that Joe Biden was the Democratic nominee and won the presidency in 2020, when there were many great candidates left of him, is evidence that a political center is not only viable but desired by the public.
For a centrist candidate, Gersen argued, “the main principle is compromise rather than all or nothing.” In the case of abortion, for example, the principle of compromise recognizes that
the majority of Americans favor keeping abortion legal, but also favor some limits on abortion. Retaining a core right of abortion that respects both autonomy of adult individuals to make reproductive decisions and the value of potential fetal life is the approach that will seem acceptable to the majority of Americans and consistent with the Constitution.
Polarization is pushed by the political extremes. The great majority of Americans, however, are not at the extremes and common ground exists among them on seemingly polarized issues.
Instead, Shattuck wrote in an email, “Americans are fed up with polarization.” His data shows that
71 percent believe Americans “have more in common with each other than many people think,” including 78 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Independents.
There is, Shattuck argues, a powerful consensus on rights and freedoms that underpins American democracy:
Bipartisan majorities consider the following to be “essential rights important to being an American today”: ‘“clean air and water” (93 percent); “a quality education” (92 percent); “affordable health care” (89 percent); and the “right to a job” (85 percent). These high levels of demand for economic and social rights are similar to the support for more traditional civil liberties and civil rights like rights of free speech (94 percent), privacy (94 percent) and equal opportunity (93 percent).
There is another aspect to the debate.
Polarization grows out of one primary identity division — usually either ethnic, religious, or ideological. In Kenya, for instance, polarization feeds off fierce competition between ethnic groups. In India, it reflects the divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of the country. But in the United States, all three kinds of division are involved.
As a result:
This powerful alignment of ideology, race, and religion with partisanship renders America’s divisions unusually encompassing and profound. It is hard to find another example of polarization in the world that fuses all three major types of identity divisions in a similar way.
Bill McInturff, a founder of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, cast doubt in an email on the prospects for a new centrism:
I am not sanguine about a national campaign that tries to find a middle ground on major cultural issues as being viable. We are in a “no compromise” era and that’s not changing any time soon.
Similarly, Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, wrote in an email:
Could Joe Biden end up being the last centrist Democrat in the way that George W. Bush might have turned out to be the last centrist Republican? I was never a fan of W, but looking back, you can see how the party was shifting away from the center inexorably toward the cultural and economic populism Trump catalyzed. I wonder if we look back a decade from now if Biden turns out to be the last of a kind. Is the future one where Republicans look more like Trump, and the Democrats tilt away from Biden’s center toward the more culturally progressive wing, one which might drive more centrist voters away?
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center provide scant optimism for proponents of less divisive politics.
said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine-in-ten — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States.
From 1994 to 2019, Pew tracked the percentage point difference between Republican and Democratic responses to 10 policy positions, including “the economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests,” “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values,” and “white people benefit from advantages in society that Black people don’t have.”
Over the 25 years from 1994 to 2019, the differences between the responses of Republicans (including those who lean Republican) and Democrats (including leaners) has more than doubled, from 15 points to 39 points.
Fiorina and centrist groups base their case for a vital middle ground in American politics on voters’ heterodox ideological and policy stands. Where these analyses run into difficulty is in addressing another force driving political division, what political scientists call “expressive partisanship” or “affective polarization,” which has rapidly intensified in recent decades.
In an email, Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, addressed this tension:
If policy were the central focus of voter preferences, there very well could be support for a centrist movement. Public opinion data tell us that, policy-by-policy, there is a density of voters with center-left preferences.
But, he continued,
Our politics, as currently structured, is not primarily about policy positions. The zero-sum, identity and affect-based partisan polarization that dominates American politics today mixes with our institutions to make it difficult for a centrist movement to get off the ground.
Along similar lines, George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, made the case in an email that there are probably
a lot of Americans that would like to see a “centrist” approach to politics. Many people are clearly tired of polarization and the negativity in American politics. At present, however, I see little chance for such a candidate or a movement.
We must not discount the power of negative partisanship. A large percentage of Republicans and Democrats despise the opposing party, this is even true of voters with little political sophistication and few ideological constraints. Thus, even if a candidate genuinely wanted to transcend partisan division, merely having a major party label would cause him or her to be vilified as an evil ‘socialist’ or ‘fascist’ by a large percentage of voters.
I asked a number of political experts if there was a strong base of potential support for a centrist candidate or a centrist political movement, and how such a candidate or movement might address the divisive social and cultural issues that often dominate campaigns.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, replied that she was unsure whether
there is much of a political “center,” meaning a place on an ideological continuum between two identifiable liberal and conservative poles where a candidate can stand and, on the basis of those stands, win elections.
There are, Lee continued,
very few politicians who take a mix of stances on the issues you list. In most cases, it’d be easy to immediately identify a politician’s party based on their stances on any one of these issues.
Separately from the politics of issue positioning on divisive matters, Lee continued,
Americans want leaders who they see as competent and trustworthy. I’d argue that these kinds of valence-issue appeals are more central to presidential (and other campaigns). If one looks to polling data on the ‘most important problem’ facing the country, only a small slice of voters cares intensely about hot-button cultural issues.
The political “center” should not be understood as a self-standing policy platform, but rather as a relational way of positioning oneself with respect to other political platforms, i.e., the extremes.
As a result, Accetti wrote by email, a candidate seeking to stake out the middle does not define his “own policy proposals or viewpoints” and instead distinguishs himself by “by playing off against” the two extremes.”
It is, Accetti wrote,
precisely because of this substantive indeterminacy, that the “center” has proved time and again that it can be a very effective electoral strategy, under a variety of different structural conditions. Think, for instance, of the various different “third ways” that secured impressive electoral victories in advanced western democracies at several junctures over the past few decades: from continental European Christian Democracy in the second postwar period, to Tony Blair’s New Labour in the aftermath of the Cold War in the U.K., up to — I would argue — Biden’s successful run in the 2020 primary and presidential races in the U.S.A.
Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, which seeks “an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity,” wrote in response to my inquiry:
I am not much of a believer in the idea of a political “center.” It seems to me that, by definition, the issues that our politics focus on at any moment in time are those on which people disagree.
One could, Cass continued,
find a massive center on all sorts of issues that the nation has long since reached a consensus: on support for a progressive tax system, old-age entitlements, women’s right to vote; opposition to communism, child labor, and so forth.
Insofar as the country struggles to resolve polarizing issues, Cass pointed to the emergence of a relatively recent phenomenon that has stymied efforts to reach agreement across party lines: the failure of both sides to agree on a common set of facts:
There is a particular set of what one might call epistemological issues that the country has probably been better at uniting on in the past than it is right now — that is, we can at least argue from the same reality even if we have different assumptions/preferences/values, and right now even that seems sometimes in doubt.
Cass then added that he hopes
cooler heads might prevail and we might be able to achieve agreement on facts like men and women differing genetically or on principles of public engagement like the importance of treating people as individuals rather than classifying and condemning or elevating them on the basis of their skin color — and I think that’s probably where the center is on those issues, if we can find it again.
Using what’s called a thermometer measure to gauge feelings toward the opposition party, with zero very cold and 100 very warm, partisan animosity has been growing at a relentless pace.
In their January 2020 paper “Cross-Country Trends in Affective Polarization,” three economists, Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow at Stanford, and Jesse M. Shapiro at Brown, measured trends in polarization in nine countries — the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Germany — over the past 40 years.
In countries with two major parties, like the United States, the three economists determined the level of animosity toward the opposition party by taking the thermometer rating of voters toward his or her own party and subtracting from it their rating of the opposing party — or, in the language of political science, “the difference between weighted mean own-party affect and weighted mean other-party affect.” A Democrat who rated her own party at 85 degrees and the Republican Party as 25 degrees, would, for example, have an affective partisanship rating of 60.
The authors found that looking at all nine countries, the United States stood out, with affect level toward opposition parties “decreasing at a rate of 5.6 points per decade, nearly three times quicker than any other country in our sample.” In other words, hostility to the opposition party has been growing steadily.
The trend in this country is illustrated in the accompanying graphic:
What factors, the three authors ask, played an important role in the rise in affective polarization in the United States?
The first factor they cite is that
among both political elites and voters, party identification became increasingly aligned with both political ideology and social identities such as race and religion.
Boxell, Gentzkow and Shapiro pointedly stress “increased party sorting by race” and note “that the increase in the nonwhite share has been twice as large in countries with rising affective polarization as in those with falling affective polarization.”
What the trends on affective partisanship suggest is that even if members of the two parties are not especially far apart on substantive issues, their social, cultural, racial and ethnic conflicts and differences will preclude agreement on the selection of a centrist candidate as the presidential nominee of either party.
The pre- and postelection extremism of Trump and his loyalists have spurred a modest backlash on the right that could, over time, prompt the party to abandon its notions of betrayal and victimization.
But for the moment, the signs of retrenchment are modest. The country’s conservative party is wedded to an extreme position — with an astonishing 59 percent of Republicans convinced as recently as March 5-9 that Joe Biden is not a legitimately elected president, according to a YouGov poll.
When one party sinks that far into delusion, cross-party cooperation is ruled out, and the kinds of centrist policies that many voters say they want become an impossibility.
The post We See the Left. We See the Right. Can Anyone See the ‘Exhausted Majority’? appeared first on New York Times.