Thomas Edsall provides a great opinion piece in this week’s NYT focused on a group of PoliSci professors’ well-researched supposition that there is no true “center” electorate of the country ready to rise up and provide balance to force the two majority political parties to get along. The profs’ meticulous research demonstrates that the political spectrum includes much more than simply a defined right and a left with a coherent, moderate, swing middle that could turn into a formidable political movement or party of the middle. Instead, the research shows a much more nuanced and sophisticated scatter-plot of Americans’ political leanings — from liberal, to conservative, to libertarian, to populists, to true “moderates” — and all sorts of confusing subsets across the graphs.
Their research shows how difficult it will be to put together a successful center-based political movement as the middle electorate is really a jumbled mish-mash of competing, incoherent ideologies (gun-control anti-abortionists, etc). Their paper and Edsall’s commentary, based on asking thousands of voters their political opinion on a range of hot-button issues, is absolutely crucial information for understanding modern American elections and coalition building. But it’s also naively oversimplified for how campaigns and elections actually happen. And demonstrates clearly the difference between political science and practical politics.
If candidate decisions were as simple for voters as taking out a scorecard and checking off which candidate they agreed with more frequently on the issues then elections would boil down to simple arithmetic exercises: hand out scorecards, tell voters the issues and the election is decided. But that’s not how it works. Candidates, coalitions and movements are about a lot more than defining opinions on specific issues. Elections are fought over ideas, coalitions, direction, momentum, character and personalities. This is what DC hyperpartisans, many political columnists and almost all political science professors get wrong. The true center — American centrists fed up with gridlock and incompetence — doesn’t have to be a formal political movement to be the most powerful political bloc in the country. Centrists aren’t hungry for a candidate/movement that caters to their specific, narrow ideological bents, but rather to leaders/parties that can coalesce diffuse politics to find common ground, common-sense approaches to modern problems. It’s a lot less to do with making the lions lie down with the lambs — it’s about finding a safe place for the lambs to get some rest while we figure out dinner for the lions and get to work on the big issues that can’t get fixed in the current partisan environment.