There’s an on-going discussion among the opinion columns of America’s centre about directions for the Democratic Party. The choice isn’t simply binary (head left or head right) because, in principle and in past practice, US political political parties have had the capacity to head off in multiple directions at the same time. However, with congress increasingly voting along party lines and an apparently more entrenched electorate, the binary choice is worth looking at.
Obviously, I’d rather the Democratic Pary headed left: I’m a leftist, I’m biased that way. Even so, there’s more going on here and I’d like to suggest that centrists should want the Democratic Party to head left also.
To start with a key assumption is that the US is not going to stop being dominated electorally by two parties. Yes, other countries have more but to have n>2 requires parliamentary government for starters and more convivial voting systems. The UK has effectively 2.5 political parties (two big ones plus the Lib Dems and nationalist parties). Australia has, say 2.8 with Labour versus the Liberal+National coalition, plus The Greens, plus sundry others. It’s hard even with the kind of positive electoral conditions to get a genuine three party democracy (i.e. three roughly equal players) – perhaps impossible. It’s either less than 3 or lots and lots (and even then two main sets of coalitions). I could imagine the US have strong regional parties but this is not something that appears to be happening.
A second key aspect follows on from the two party dominance. US elections are as much about turnout as about shifting voters from one party to another.
A last aspect is that the Republican Party is the political equivalent of a landfill site full of car tires on fire. Whatever it may have been in the past, since at least the Nixon era it has been sliding into a political position that is actively harmful to its own country and harmful to electoral process.
So either you are or you can imagine being somebody who wants nice, stable centrist politics that are nice for capitalism but not too horrible to poor people and not too many taxes etc etc. What should you want? The Republican Party isn’t moving and try to coax it leftwards is rather like trying to reason with the aforementioned burning landfill. So it is tempting to imagine that the Democrats should hold the centre. This is an error, not just because actually you shouldn’t be a centrist but because it doesn’t get you what you want.
Let me use some non-scientific but conceptual schematics. Here is what a centrist should want or might believe was the case in the past.
That nominal centre moves over time but two major parties fight over it but from different directions. There are (in this imagined world) Republicans who more closely resemble Democrats (and vice versa) both as voters and in legislatures. Further to the left and to the right are people with political views who may be active in some ways but are not engaged electorally. Whether this has ever really been the case is an open question but it is safe to say that it doesn’t resemble the current situation and that the current situation is, if anything, moving further from this scenario.
Here’s what I think the current situation looks like (again not scientific or actually quantified and with all the flaws in scrunching complex ideologies into a single axis).
The Republicans have engaged the disengaged right. The rise of Trump has (to varying degrees) helped engage the disengaged left. However, the GOP is pretty much under the control of ideas much further to the right, whereas the Democratic Party is still pretty much what is was anyway – a centrist party.
What looks tempting is the electoral space being created by this heavy rightward shift of the GOP as well as its policy incompetence. I’ve described before the typology of voters in the US and there’s an increasingly clear gap between how the GOP projects itself and more socially-progressive but fiscally conservative sections of the population. Those business conservatives may still vote with their pockets for the GOP to get their tax cuts.
Put another way, there is a space for a political party in my schematics, shown with a red dotted outline. The GOP isn’t going to fill that space and so, a pundit at say the New York Times etc might look at that space and see electoral gold.
If it exists, then the choice seems obvious. The Democrats could ditch the left, head a bit (but not to far) right and pull in votes from the GOP, who will end up banished to the outer darkness. Like so:
What it would do in practice is to leave the GOP as it is (landfill full of tires etc see above) and lose the Democrats votes on the left. Yes, obviously the left aren’t going to vote GOP but they become less likely to vote all round or campaign electorally.
Worse, a centrist should want a PLURALIST system. This model has a reasonable but right-of-centre party versus a party that is actively dangerous to democracy and national stability. Either you’d have to hope for one party to be in power for ever or the GOP to fix itself. However, the capacity for the GOP to fix itself is actively undermined by this model because the moderate right has been poached by the Democrats. In effects, it makes the trashfire element of the GOP stronger.
Heading left has advantages for the Democrats by engaging voters on the left without abandoning the centre completely. In doing so it creates electoral and policy space in the centre right. Could a new party emerge there? Probably not based on past US history but even the threat of a centre right party that pulls votes from the GOP could help pull the GOP leftwards.