Opinion | We Can See the Left. We Can See the Right. Is There Still a Center?
If it’s gone, the consequences are enormous.
Credit…Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By Thomas B. Edsall
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.
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.”
The second study, “Hidden Tribes,” was conducted for “More In Common,” another group that supports centrist policies.
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.
John Shattuck, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, notes that surveys and reports he has overseen affirm the strong presence of a middle ground in American politics:
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.
In most countries, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue, both of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, write in their 2019 essay. “How Americans Were Driven to Extremes”:
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.
In a postelection report, Michael Dimock, Pew’s president, and Richard Wike, its director of global research, wrote that among both Biden and Trump voters, roughly 80 percent
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.”
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