Monday, August 07, 2017

There Is No "Political Center" in Modern America


An entirely false but constantly sold view of the American electorate (source; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

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 [i.e., linear] model' 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 Berkley 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 it? 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.

[Update: Edited for accuracy in describing a graphic.]


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At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... the Party doesn't want to be fixed."

Nothing more needs to be said.

At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GP fell prey to the usual false dichotomy.

First, you correctly indicate that the "center" is what (the money) wants (or will tolerate).

Then: "On most of these [economic] issues, effective policy responses aren’t unknown — they’re just considered politically untenable."

They're not POLITICALLY untenable. They're simply not what is acceptable to the money.

Bernie (and to a lesser extent, the drumpfsterfire) proved that these solutions are NOT politically untenable. But the fraudulent "victory" of $hillbillary in the rigged nom process and the final electoral college result shows that the solutions are simply not what the money wants.

The drumpfsterfire appealed to the distressed potted plant demo with his version of economic populism. $hillbillary could not ever pass as an economic populist because she is the opposite of that (maybe that's why she didn't even try) so $he lost all those Berniecrats.

What BOTH sects of the money's party want us/US to remain ignorant of is this: There are as many eligible voters who never vote as there are D voters or R voters.

If the Ds really wanted to win and win forever, they'd lurch back to the policies of FDR through LBJ and see that third of dormant voters re-engage in the process.
See, americans are stupid. We need to see proof in spades that every OTHER policy will fail spectacularly before we'll go back and retry the one thing that has always worked.

And thank you GP for illustrating what has always worked. We certainly never hear or get reminded (for those of us over 60) about what worked so well from '32 through '69.
Americans are so stupid that we forgot or never knew that what we've been doing since '80 has been done before. The result was the great depression.

Or perhaps we're just insane -- as defined by Einstein who said, basically, insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Gaius Publius said...

Just a note, Anon @3:20. The second quote you cite isn't me speaking, nor do I agree with the sentiment expressed in that sentence.


At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My apologies, GP. You were quoting Levitz. My bad.

I'm delighted you do not agree with his assessment... fwiw.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Thomas Ten Bears said...

I have been at odds with "Independent" for as long as we in Oregon have been able to register No Party Affiliation, which is not a party and is not in any way connected to the No Party party. When registering as an "Independent" one is effectively joining the Independent party, who are to my observation Libertarian, who are of course Republicans smoking pot.

The point of No Party Affiliation is not "belonging" to a party, as none of the "parties" represent my interests. Parties represent their own interests. I don't want to be identified as "Independent" any more than I would "Green", or either Republican or Democrat.

The confusion over this of course serves the various purposes of the various parties as readily as the two major parties. The arbitrary assignation "Independent" is misplaced.

At 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TTB, why not leave party blank then? I'm "independent" bwo leaving party blank when registering to vote.

I don't agree that claiming "independent" means libertarian. That's a party choice in every state I've ever lived in. To me and those I know who did the same, "indy" means simply we eschew all organized parties. All I know are definitely left of the democraps. I presume most of the total are as well.

At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pardon me, but I beg to differ vehemently. All the folks who want to control our lives belong squarely on the "left" of the spectrum shown above. If one views the spectrum as entities in control on the left, and less control as one moves to the right, then the middle of that spectrum is the sweet spot. It is where we have enough government so that we don't have to sit, armed, on the front porch fighting off marauders; it is where we can enter into legal contracts with the notion that they will be upheld; it is where there is some semblance of law and order. As one moves further to the right, we see no control. Lawlessness. Anarchy. The spectrum simply moves from left to right: BIG government to NO government.

The vacuum of no government on the right, no government=anarchy, quickly wraps around back to the left as disheveled people beg for 'a leader' to take charge and restore order. These ideas come from Nelson Hultberg who rightly recognizes that we have a duopoly comprised of Dems and Pubs, working for their elite masters, firmly entrenched on the left of the spectrum that describes entities in control of our lives on the left, and anarchy, no government on the extreme right.

It is the only spectrum that makes any sense and that can be clearly defined. It brings into full focus the meanings of "oligarchies", "monarchies", "fascism", "communism", "socialism," etc. The large descriptor for these might be "collectivists" where the individual no longer enjoys sovereignty, but some form of collectivism dictates social mores, and everything else on the left of the spectrum.

Readers, look at the spectrum above, and then try to come up with any better description. WHO CONTROLS YOU, who has the controlling levers on society, and where do they belong on a spectrum? I maintain that the sweet spot is closer to the middle, and that I've no use for socialists, fascists, communists, collectivists that reside firmly on the far left of the spectrum. DEFINITIONS, the meaning of words, MATTER. According to the degree of control over our lives by some big entities, fascist and socialist differ very little.

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, 7:00. Hitler didn't control his people at all. History is clear on that.

He only controlled a few by having them executed if they didn't do what he wanted and by incinerating many more for being not aryan. The rest were free to do as they pleased, including criticizing their government.

We all remember that.

Is everyone in this shithole a potted plant?


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