The Still-Vital Center: Moderates, Democrats, and the Renewal of American Politics

In 2006, 2008, and 2010, America experienced a series of
wave elections that resulted in shifts of political control. At
the same time, the country continues to grapple with serious,
potentially existential threats: a weak economy, massive structural
deficits and growing global competition. Both problems—
political polarization and the failure of governance—share
the same root cause: the failure to give moderates adequate
voice in the nation’s electoral and policy processes. This report
argues for a new moderate politics that can solve these twin
challenges. For Democrats, a politics of the center presents a
critical opportunity—to both rebuild a lasting governing coalition
and to champion a new reform agenda that can heal a political
process now fractured by polarization. For America, a politics of
the center presents an opportunity to solve some of the biggest
challenges it has ever faced.


A crisis of confidence in politics and in governance

In the aftermath of the November 2010 elections, the tone of American politics has shifted.

The lame-duck session of the 111th Congress was surprisingly productive, in part because Democrats and Republicans compromised to reach agreement, and in part because some Republicans abandoned their monolithic opposition to the Obama administration’s initiatives. Since the Tucson tragedy, both parties have worked to reduce the incivility that has disfigured our politics, and President Obama delivered a State of the Union address widely regarded as an effort to take the edge off the often-harsh conflict that dominated his first two years in office. As a result, the political parties and the president have all seen their approval jump—evidence of the public’s yearning for a style of politics less geared towards point-scoring and more toward problem-solving. But despite the modest improvements of recent months, America enters the second decade of the 21st century with a public whose mood remains sour. Only a third of Americans think the country is on the right track, confidence in government stands near an all-time low, and partisan polarization has reached levels not seen since the 1890s, resulting in public disapproval of both political parties. And despite the generally positive reaction to Obama’s speech, only 34% think that it signals a major change in the types of policies he will pursue.

It is not hard to find reasons for these sentiments: an economy mired in slow growth and high unemployment in the wake of the deepest recession since the Great Depression; two costly and seemingly interminable foreign wars; and record budget deficits as far as the eye can see. While America is stuck in neutral, nations such as China, India, and Brazil are surging ahead, generating widespread fears that our best days are behind us and that further decline is inevitable. The modest goodwill of the immediate post-election period is threatened by an impending series of high-decibel budget battles that will do little to address our unsustainable fiscal course.

This is more than a list of policy challenges; it represents a failure of governance—a system that heaps up problems without ever solving them. In response, the people have repeatedly resorted to the ballot-box, but without getting what they want. Remarkably, three consecutive elections have produced large shifts in the political balance without enhancing public satisfaction. In eight of the past ten years, the share of Americans saying that the country was headed in the right direction has declined. (See Appendix #1)

We argue that this crisis of governance and the difficulty Democrats have had in sustaining a governing majority have the same root—namely, the failure to give appropriate weight to political moderates in our electoral and policy processes. But these problems also have the same cure—adopting the kinds of structural changes that will amplify moderates’ voices.

While the greater inclusion of moderates on both sides of the political divide would benefit the nation as a whole, we focus our case in this paper on why moderates have particular significance for Democrats. To flesh out this thesis, we present evidence and arguments for three basic propositions:

  • Moderates are an essential ingredient for building a lasting Democratic majority. Democrats cannot build sustainable state-wide or national majorities without winning a super-majority among voters who identify themselves as moderates. At the national level, self-identified liberals constitute barely one-fifth of the electorate; in most states, they are nowhere near a plurality—let alone a majority. 
  • Moderates are not “liberals in disguise.” Moderates as a group have distinct viewpoints and policy preferences. They are neither liberals in disguise nor conservatives with a more conciliatory style. Nor are they Independents with a different label. Only 47% of moderates are Independents; only 43% of Independents are moderates. Their political orientations and attitudes differ significantly. 
  • The current political process disfavors moderates. The basic structures of American politics—ranging from closed primaries to congressional redistricting procedures—systematically tip the scales against moderates and reward candidates closer to the political extremes.

It is in the long-term interests of the Democratic Party to champion reforms that will level the playing field for the moderate voters and candidates that comprise such a critical segment of the Democratic coalition. But not only will Democrats benefit from giving moderates increased attention and weight, so will the political system as a whole. Polarization will diminish, and policy-making will be more likely to yield sustainable outcomes that large majorities of the electorate can endorse.

These reforms will address a central source of public dissatisfaction with modern politics: it will ensure that the system fairly and fully reflects the sentiments of moderate citizens whose voices are muted by current political arrangements.

Click here to view the full paper »