When Should Parties Move toward the Center?

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Reading Brown Is the New White by Steve Phillips got me thinking about the general question of political party strategy. Should a party that wants more votes appeal to the center of the political spectrum, or should it focus on “firing up the base”? Phillips thinks that Democrats should do less of the former and more of the latter. Under what conditions is that good strategy?

To start with a simple conception of the electorate, imagine a bell-shaped curve with moderate, centrist voters outnumbering both distinct leftists and distinct rightists. Although opinions on single issues can be quite polarized, there are a lot of issues that can be used to classify voters on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum. People who are conservatives on abortion are not necessarily conservative on economics. If only voters who are consistently liberal or conservative score near the extremes, then the majority come out looking more moderate. If that’s the case, and assuming there are only two major parties, one could make a general case for appealing to the center, since that’s where the most votes are.

What that simple picture overlooks is that each party has its own political base, to which it must appeal in order to motivate its supporters to vote. Each party has its own distribution curve, one to the right of the other. Each curve will have its own peak, where the largest number of its supporters are found. In the simplest case, the two parties have the same number of voting members, both peaks are the same height, and the two peaks are equidistant from the national center. This sets up the classic dilemma. On the one hand, nominating someone a little more centrist than the typical party member might be good strategy, in the hope of getting all the votes of party members plus some support from more moderate swing voters. On the other hand, that strategy might lose some support from the party base. A “true conservative” or “true progressive” might really turn out the party faithful, which could be more crucial to victory than winning over a few swing voters. This, of course, is exactly Phillips’ point with regard to today’s Democratic Party.

Another variable affecting the outcome is party loyalty or discipline. If party loyalty is high, party members may turn out regularly in any case, so success may hinge on adding some swing voters as well. But if the base only votes when they are really excited about a candidate, a moderate candidate could be fatal. Democrats have long had a problem turning out minority and poor voters who lean Democratic but don’t make it to the polls.

Complicating matters further, there is no guarantee that the two parties are equally popular or equidistant from the national center to begin with. One party can be smaller and farther from the center, while the other is larger and closer to the center. This can easily happen because the center is a moving target as far as substantive issues are concerned. Today’s centrist may support policies that were once considered leftist, such as the Social Security system or the right of workers to bargain collectively. Sometimes the country changes, and a party is left behind. A party that finds itself in the minority may have no choice but to tack toward the center, while a majority party can be true to its base and still succeed. Phillips believes that the Democratic Party can now show its true progressive colors because, as his subtitle declares, “the demographic revolution has created a New American Majority.”

These considerations help us make sense out of the recent history of presidential elections. During the period of Democratic Party dominance from 1932 to 1964, Democrats could win the White House with frankly liberal candidates. Republicans were successful with the moderate war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, who accepted much of Roosevelt’s New Deal, but they lost badly with the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater.

Things changed after the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights and the War on Poverty. Democrats had to contend with White backlash, while at the same time dealing with an internal struggle over the Vietnam War. In 1968, the moderate conservative Richard Nixon narrowly defeated the liberal Hubert Humphrey, who lost votes both from young opponents of the war and blue-collar supporters of the southern segregationist George Wallace. When Democrats nominated the even more liberal George McGovern in 1972, Nixon won reelection in a landslide. In the aftermath of Watergate, Democrats elected a southern moderate, Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was marred by runaway inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. Republicans then launched the “Reagan Revolution” with landslide wins in 1980 and 1984. They did so by appealing to the cultural and racial conservatism of White Southerners, blaming Big Government for the country’s economic problems, and interpreting the hostage crisis as a sign of military weakness.

The previously dominant Democratic Party had tried to keep moving to the left, but the country hadn’t gone with them. No wonder the conventional wisdom after 1980 was that the party had to strengthen its appeal to the center. The election of Bill Clinton, who conceded that the “era of Big Government is over,” marked the success of that strategy.

Now, however, the tables may be turning. Now it’s the Republican Party that keeps moving in one direction, but is having trouble getting the country to go along. This is partly because of the demographic revolution described by Phillips. But the Republican brand is also being damaged in other ways: loss of public confidence in free-market, “trickle-down” economics and waning public enthusiasm for conservative positions on social issues, notably gay rights. Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections (including Al Gore’s narrow victory in votes, but loss of the electoral college due to the Florida debacle and Supreme Court intervention). Instead of moderating their positions, they have doubled down on conservatism, offering unusual resistance to the nation’s first Black president, perhaps to please their White Southern base. The result is a legislative gridlock that doesn’t please anyone, but the Republican controlled Congress is getting the brunt of the criticism. Current unfavorable ratings are Congress 61%, Republican Party 60%, Democratic Party 43%.

The Republican Party may now be so far to the right of the typical voter that its ability to win national elections is seriously damaged. If so, it makes sense that it is fracturing over the dilemma that confronts any minority party, whether to tack to the center by nominating a moderate with some hope of winning, or to appeal to true believers by selecting someone more extreme who cannot. Republican primary voters seem to be choosing the latter option, since the two biggest vote getters are among the most conservative (and nationally unpopular) in the race. Donald Trump seems to be a throwback to the nationalists of the 1920s and 30s, wanting to blame the country’s problems on foreigners, immigrants and minorities. And Ted Cruz is an evangelical Tea Party conservative who denies that human activity is contributing to climate change, encourages states to ignore the Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage, and wants to eliminate many federal government departments (Energy, Education, Commerce, Housing & Urban Development, Internal Revenue Service).

If it is now safer for the Democratic Party to move to the left, while it is hazardous for the Republican Party to remain on the right, that’s a pretty good sign that the balance of power in the country is starting to shift. Of course, I may have to eat those words if the country actually elects a President Trump or President Cruz!

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