This is a letter to political centrists.
For those of you alarmed that Rep. Eric Cantor was not conservative enough for Republicans in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, I encourage you to read Charles Wheelan’s The Centrist Manifesto. Wheelan, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, puts to words what we can all sense: Partisan gridlock is becoming more than a nuisance in our lives. It is threatening our economy, our children’s educations, the welfare of the planet, and every other national priority.
Take a read through Wheelan’s “Manifesto.” It’s a short read, published last year after it became clear that President Obama’s re-election would not bring a new age of bipartisanship to Washington. Wheelan calls for the center to step outside of the two major parties and stand up for itself. In noting that the fastest growing bloc of voters is Independents, Wheelan argues that both the Democratic and Republican parties have driven out moderates by standing only for their political bases — and that the only resolution to this is an organized movement of Independents.
Take a read, because Wheelan is wrong.
Wheelan’s vision may have made sense in 2013, but much has changed in the past year. We are now well past the time for quixotic visions of bipartisanship driven by centrists on both sides of the divide. To read “Manifesto” is to recall a time when Americans could reasonably believe that in spite of bitter partisanship in Washington, Congress could transcend the ideological gap to act on immigration reform, universal background checks, and tax reform. To behave, in short, like statesmen.
If we have learned anything from Eric Cantor’s demise, it’s that the Republican Party is no place for pragmatic centrists. It’s not even a place for relentless partisans who may stray from Republican orthodoxy on an issue or two.
So it’s time to just say it out in the open: The resolution to Washington’s dysfunction is a migration of Independents into the Democratic Party, because there is only one side that seems at all interested in welcoming centrists.
We should first note one of the most fundamental rules of political science: Duverger’s Law. This is the observation, made famous by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, that in winner-take-all two-party systems, voters inevitably gravitate toward one of two major parties. This is because voters do not want to waste their vote on a candidate who will not win. Recall how quickly liberal voters snapped back into the Democratic fold after wasting votes on Ralph Nader in 2000; they know Duverger’s Law well.
Given Duverger’s Law, it would follow that any potential “Centrist Party” would run into institutional obstacles not easily surmounted by even the most popular movement. And even those preaching the gospel of bipartisanship, nonpartisanship, and centrism must accept the reality that the current Republican Party is plainly interested in none of that.
This goes for the 501(c)(4) groups like Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us. If you want Congress to move “FWD” on immigration reform, under what circumstance could you expect a GOP-led House to buck the Tea Party and pass a bill that commands broad bipartisan support?
This also goes for moderate voters, whom Wheelan notes comprised 41 percent of the electorate in 2012.
Wheelan correctly observes that any centrist party should not simply meet both sides halfway on each issue, but rather take the best ideas from both sides. A rational observer, for example, would not conclude that climate change is “probably” happening because Democrats are sure it is, and Republicans are sure it’s not.
He also correctly notes that many Democrats have strayed from sensible policies in favor of myopic political interests. But it simply cannot be said that there is no home for centrists in the Democratic Party.
In fact, several prominent Democrats — including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) — are on record as supporting school choice. Congress passed free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama in 2011 with large numbers of Democratic votes, and President Obama signed them into law. The Obama administration and many of its congressional allies have supported lowering the corporate income tax from 35 percent to 28 percent.
In other words, Democrats often support centrist policies without reprisal. Such apostasy would never be tolerated in the GOP.
Wheelan examines the U.S. Senate in “Manifesto,” and proposes that if moderate members began asserting themselves as independent from their parties, the cogs of Washington may begin to turn again.
“With a mere four or five U.S. Senate seats, the Centrists can deny either traditional party a majority. At that point, the Centrists would be America’s power brokers…good things can start happening again,” Wheelan writes.
He’s right, but who might these four to five senators be? At the moment, they would almost assuredly be Democrats.
Take a look at the vote scoring of the 112th Senate (which ended after the 2012 election,) done by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. The NOMINATE scale, an abbreviation for Nominal Three-Step Estimation, is immensely complex, and explaining it is well beyond the scope of this piece. Please accept for a moment that -1 on the scale is the score of the most liberal senator imaginable, and 1 is the most conservative. Zero is the perfect middle.
You may note the slight asymmetry of the distribution. I would mark the area between -0.25 and 0.25 as centrist territory. Thirteen of these centrists were Democrats, and only five were Republicans. Of these five, only Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME) remain in the 113th Senate. Murkowski, it should be noted, held on to her seat in 2010 only after a miraculous write-in campaign overruled GOP primary voters, who nominated fringe Tea Party candidate Joe Miller.
You might also note that NOMINATE scores President Obama as being as liberal as Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) was conservative. Obama commands the approval of nearly 80 percent of Democrats, while Lugar was dismissed by GOP voters in favor of a man who believed that “God’s intent” was for women to bear the children of their rapists.
A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 82 percent of “consistently liberal” respondents said they would like elected officials to make compromises; only 14 percent said they would prefer that elected officials stick to their positions. When offered the same dichotomy, “consistently conservative” respondents said they would prefer elected officials hold fast to their views by a 63 to 32 percent margin.
This Republican intransigence left Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein, two of the most prominent scholars of the Senate, to place the blame for Washington’s dysfunction squarely on the GOP in their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
“When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges,” Mann and Ornstein write.
Of course, we recently had two years of almost unfettered Democratic control in Washington. Was the record of the 111th Congress, which reigned in 2009 and 2010, perfect? Of course not. But it got things done, including passing a markedly centrist health care bill that has expanded coverage to more than 10 million people to date.
It got done because those four or five senators Wheelan speaks of cooperated. Those senators were all Democrats.
On the issues, I have no apparent disagreements with Wheelan. He’s a brilliant author and public policy expert.
But he, and others, has to drop these silly notions of false equivalence. I too hope for a day when Republicans in Washington are ready to rejoin mainstream political thought. But it does no good to pretend that they exist in that space now. And given the message that GOP voters just sent us from Virginia’s 7th congressional district, they aren’t coming back anytime soon.
Until the GOP is ready to return to rationality, centrists are left with no choice but to organize and vote for Democrats, and work within the Democratic Party to advance centrist goals.
Thomas L. Day is an Iraq War veteran and a Defense Council member of the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.
Photo: TechCrunch via Flickr
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