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The Myth of the Moderate - Why the "Political Center" is Meaningless

By Mark Thompson

There has been much discussion of late regarding Obama's long-awaited "move to the center," (essentially his break from his party's so-called "base") as well as to a lesser extent McCain's tilt right on various other issues. Most notably of course has been Andrew Sullivan's praise of Obama's position shifts.

The implication is that this is smart politics by Obama because in so doing, he is seeking to increase his appeal amongst so-called "moderate" or "centrist" voters who are allegedly unaffiliated with either party, or are at least more independent-minded than more ideological voters. The problem is that this argument, which is so often taken for granted in the press and by many people who should know better, has very little basis in reality. At its base, this conventional wisdom assumes a one-dimensional politics in which we are all just varying degrees of liberal and conservative and/or Democrat and Republican. Under this view, American politics consists of exactly three factions, with a couple of radical extremists on the fringes: center-left Democrats, center-right Republicans, and moderate independents. By "moving to the center" a politician in theory succeeds in getting more votes by expanding the portion of the spectrum willing to vote for him, or at least unwilling to vote for the other guy.

But this ignores political reality: independents and "moderates" or "centrists" are two very different things. For instance, libertarians and populist Lou Dobbs supporters would both be smack dab in the middle of any linear conception of politics - these days, both are about equally likely to support the Dems as they are the Republicans on any given issue, and neither could be remotely consider "moderate." But the views of libertarians and populists are almost completely opposite to each other. This is equally true of many - probably even most - of the other groups in the so-called "center." By "moving to the center," a politician isn't necessarily winning over the support of many of those groups, and may even wind up hurting his standing with a majority of those groups.

When pressed, I suspect many of the advocates of this conventional wisdom would concede that a linear conception of politics is worthless (except as a measure of a politician's level of partisanship - but that is a different issue entirely), and would instead turn to something akin to the Political Compass or the Nolan Chart. To be sure, this two-dimensional view of the political spectrum is much more useful - but it still has plenty of limitations since it fails to account for views on international relations, provides only a minimal measurement of intensity of political beliefs, and tell us nothing about a person or group's actual positions on specific issues - ie, someone who opposes gay rights but favors gun rights can score precisely the same on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis as someone who favors gay rights but opposes gun rights. Despite these limitations, the two-dimensional view is enough of an improvement that it can provide a better understanding of the political spectrum - but only if you understand these limitations. The problem is that too many of even those who prefer the two-dimensional view of the political spectrum fail to understand these limitations.

The result is that the two-dimensional Political Compass is used to justify a view that is only minimally different from the linear view of the spectrum. In essence, the Political Compass (and related grids) is used to conceptualize the political parties as falling in either the top right quadrant (Republicans) or the bottom left quadrant (Democrats) of the American political spectrum (which itself falls primarily within the upper right quadrant of the global political spectrum). Under this conception, "moving to the center" is still logical because it positions a politician closest on the political spectrum to the maximum number of people. Unfortunately, there are some major problems with this view:

1. It assumes that people in the same area of the grid have similar views on any given issue, and that the "center" specifically is essentially monolithic - but as I noted above, this is simply not the case. Therefore, by "moving to the center" on a given issue, a politician might - and often does - wind up alienating many of the very voters he is trying to reach (some of whom may have been in his camp already on the strength of the politician's original stand on the issue). Think of the so-called "Obamacans," many of whom support Obama because of their anger at the GOP on civil liberties issues, and who would certainly fall close to the center of the average Political Compass - by abandoning those positions, Obama may be sacrificing this group's support just as he seeks to gain it since it may effectively remove the issue as a primary motivation to support Obama.

2. It assumes that the Democrats fall squarely in the bottom left quadrant and the Republicans in the top right quadrant, and mainstream independents in a separate block in the center for the parties to fight over. Put another way - it makes the assumption that political parties have coherent ideologies when, as I have said repeatedly, they are really just coalitions of various interest groups. In fact, the rank and file of these interest groups (as opposed to their leadership, which often consists primarily of party hacks whose views are on average indistinguishable from the group's preferred political party's leadership) tend to have views that deviate wildly from the party's established norms - they just tend to vote for that party because it happens to be better for them on their most important issue(s). If the membership's most important issue(s) change, then their support of a given coalition/political party may change as well.

3. It assumes that all issues are created equally for all voters/interest groups, and does not account for the relative weight that a voter/interest group will give to an issue. This is particularly important because "moving to the center" usually involves making one's views appear less "extreme" and more "moderate." The problem is that people with "moderate" views on an issue are extremely unlikely to vote on that issue. So "moving to the center" accomplishes little to nothing in terms of gaining votes. It may, however, drive down turnout as it forces voters to feel like they have little choice in the election.

This isn't to say that flip-flopping or moderating one's position on an issue is always a bad idea - just that it is frequently not a particularly good idea. In Obama's case, his capitulation on FISA, and his shift rightward on Iraq have significantly reduced two of the main reasons he was getting a tremendous amount of support from traditionally Republican-voting libertarians; to be sure, I expect he will still do better than McCain amongst libertarians, but I also expect that his moves on these issues will drive down libertarian turnout and/or force more libertarians to Bob Barr. So by "moving to the center," Obama may have actually hurt his position with a good number of independents - which is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom that arises out of the one and two-dimensional understanding of the political spectrum.

The bottom line, as I have written and suggested many times before, is that the Dem and Republican party establishments don't fit neatly into any ideological divide because ultimately they only represent the top priority issues of their constituent interest group/coalition members at any given time, often under the umbrella of one or two primary priority issues about which most or all coalition members are highly motivated. But when push comes to shove, the rank and file members of any given interest group are individuals whose loyalty to a political party only goes so far as that party can represent their top priority issue(s). Although we consider these groups to be either "conservative" or "liberal" based on whether they are most commonly associated with Democrats or Republicans, the fact is that this is a tremendous oversimplification- many political beliefs of so-called "neo-conservatives" are both economically "liberal" (as that word is used today) and deeply unconservative to the extent they wish to pursue an activist foreign policy; similarly the social policy views of many union members and "blue collar" workers are often quite at odds with Dem Party orthodoxy. In reality, true philosophical "conservatives" and "liberals" are difficult to find; instead, these words usually represent nothing more than the existing conventional wisdom of a given political coalition's rank-and-file.

Similarly, political "moderates," "centrists," and "independents" are not a monolithic group. While many may well vote for a candidate they think is a maverick from their party's orthodoxy, the fact is that this group of voters does not have their own platform - the individuals within this oft-cited block of voters simply do not have a unifying issue on which you can say a politician's "move to the center" is necessarily likely to bring many of these voters into the politician's fold. The only real difference between "independents" and partisan voters is that independents don't belong to a group that is firmly entrenched in one of the major party's coalitions. Put another way - independents are largely people whose primary issues of concern are poorly represented by both parties, and so they are forced to vote on issues of lesser importance to them. As such, the way to capture the "center" (if we define independents as the "center") is for a politician to hit on the issue or issues that are most important to these groups. Rarely will an attempt to blur the distinctions between a politician and his opponent accomplish this - if the independent really preferred the opponent's position to begin with, then that independent is either already voting on the basis of that issue (in which case he has no incentive to vote for the flip-flopping candidate, whose position is by definition simply weaker than the opponent's position), or has already decided that the issue is not important enough to form the basis for his/her vote (in which case flip-flopping accomplishes nothing).

All of which is an extremely long way of saying that the so-called "political center" is a myth, at least in the sense of being a group worth pandering to. Indeed, I would even argue that pandering to the "political center" - by both parties - has major potential long-term consequences that result in the country as a whole moving in a less centrist, and more statist direction. But alas that is a story for another time.

Mark blogs regularly at Publius Endures