In the ever-intensifying battle between red and blue, the consultants, fixers and self-serving media thrive, but America suffers.
Now we seem destined to face a graphic battle of extremes between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, two self-styled populists best suited to exacerbating polarization while both sides toss around charges of “treason” and embrace the idea of an inevitable civil war.
I dream of a purple America where politics is civil and focuses on solving problems. The good news is that the country is actually far purpler than either red or blue. The most recent survey data shows that a majority of Democrats still consider themselves moderate or conservative while barely one in four see themselves as “very liberal”; among Republicans, despite Trump’s vaunted popularity, roughly 40 percent want their party to move closer to the center.
A wide base for purple politics
Political moderation is far more widespread than many suggest. Sarah Lawrence political scientist Sam Abrams, found, for example, that voters in the South are only slightly more conservative than those in the Northeast. Roughly as many consider themselves moderate as conservative, while a quarter describe themselves as liberal. Similarly, among residents of New England, long a bastion of progressives, barely 31 percent call themselves liberal while over a quarter identify as conservative and 43 percent moderate.
“Self-described moderates control the balance of power in all regions,” Abrams suggests. This is also the case, he notes, if you break down areas by rural, suburban and urban designations. Again, moderates dominate in virtually every category over both liberals and conservative.
So why extreme polarized politics?
Given these realities, how do we end up with choices, such as in 2016 and likely next year, that as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse put it, are about as “popular as dumpster fires” among voters?
Some of the problem stems from record high alienation from the higher levels of government.
Barely 18 percent of Americans, for example, believe the federal government will do the right thing, a pattern common across all regions. The more powerful and least accountable the institutions — the media, academia and big corporations — the higher the level of distrust.
This has left our national politics largely in the hands of zealots, both right and left, and those for whom politics is often a profitable business. These are the forces driving the committed to ever more ideological hysteria.
Zealots, and those who make their livings from serving them, do not favor political collaboration across party lines. Groups that rally to the far right and left don’t want peaceful dialogue with dissenters. Indeed, the most intolerant of all our political “tribes,” notes one recent Atlantic study, are white social justice warriors, precisely the people who dominate the loud leftish Twitter fringe that drives the party base.
The Purple Tide could be just beginning
In contrast, purple politics would not exploit paranoia and hysteria but seek out practical answers to problems from transportation and housing to energy use and homelessness; it would follow essentially moderate policies that fit the largely suburban middle class.
This requires a new generation of leaders willing to break the ideological paralysis. Critically this includes the great GOP stronghold of Texas. In 2018 many longstanding Republican congressmen and other officials were defeated, as was nearly the polarizing Sen. Ted Cruz. To stem the bleeding, Republican strategist are seeking out more moderate, sensible politicians to deal with an increasingly purple electorate.
Fortunately for the Republicans in Texas, the Democrats seem to be accommodating this strategy by pushing the Texas party further to left, embracing such things as bans on fossil fuels, a mortal threat to their state’s boom. Some, notably in Austin, have adopted policies on homelessness modeled on San Francisco’s, with predictable results on the street that will make for fine GOP propaganda.
This hopefully temporary insanity manifests itself in onetime moderate Beto O’Rourke, who now favors such things as reparations for those arrested for marijuana possession, open borders, as well as essentially nationalizing zoning, a position first embraced by his fellow Texas Democrat, Julian Castro. Between them, these once touted young political stars barely muster 15 percent of the Texas Democratic primary vote, according to a recent poll.
Generally, in gaining public approval, moderate GOP governors do best, and dominate the ranks of the most popular figures in American politics. In contrast, those at the bottom tend to be outspoken progressives, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and similarly left-leaning politicians such as last place finisher Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, although some particularly harsh conservatives, like Kentucky’s Matt Bevin also do poorly.
Political self-interest lies in the center
Purple politics, sadly, is not doing well in the Democratic Party’s presidential race. Elizabeth Warren, with her calls for a vast increase in federal power, as well higher taxes on the middle class, could drive a large number of middle-of-the-road and even working-class voters, including many minorities, to the GOP.
As the liberal columnist Jonathan Chait has observed, many new progressive stances now being adopted by Democrats — reparations, decriminalizing border crossings, health-care coverage to undocumented immigrants, eliminating energy production — are not likely to appeal to even moderate party members, much less independents.
For example, Medicare for all, embraced by Warren, is favored by barely 40 percent of the electorate. Proposals from Democratic candidates to eliminate private cars, end air travel and phase out red meat may not play well outside Manhattan, San Francisco and West Los Angeles. Already, notes The New York Times, the left shift is driving independents away from the party. Some 54 percent of all Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prefer a more moderate than more liberal party.
The failures of more mainstream candidates, such as Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper, illustrate that the party’s left is far better organized than the center. They appeal, according to a recent YouGov poll, to bread-and-butter issues built around the safety net, jobs and prosperity that moderate Democrats care about.
But the more motivated, and well-organized activists embrace a less saleable agenda of draconian climate-change policies, virtually unregulated abortion and removal of barriers to undocumented immigration. Only the embrace of such extreme and unpopular positions can save the presidency of the clearly unbalanced and deeply unpopular Donald Trump.
Yet purple politics may regain its appeal particularly if Trump is reelected. At some point, the political class will have to recognize that most people don’t care much about “conservative principles,” “saving the planet” or massive schemes to assure “social justice” on the backs of middle-class taxpayers. They want competent government, not politicians who only represent money interests and the organized yammerers within their parties.
Despite the awful choice we are about to have at the top of the ticket, the good news that America is already essentially a purple country, dominated far more by moderation and common sense than the punditry suggests. What we need are political leaders capable of tapping into that reality, both for the own benefit and that of the country.