Politics Society

Is Centrist America A Myth?

In case you missed it, Thomas Edsall had a fascinating article in the NYT about the work of two graduate students and their quest to understand if there really is a “silent majority” of “moderate” voters in America. Their conclusion, after conducting some interesting experiments, is that the idea that most voters are somewhere in the political center is really an illusion.


As Edsell notes:

What if the notion that a large segment of the electorate is made up of moderates who hunger for centrist compromise is illusory? What if ordinary voters are, in many respects, even more extreme in their views than members of Congress?

Two political science graduate students at Berkeley, David E. Broockmanand Douglas J. Ahler, have made a persuasive case that not only are there few voters who are actually centrist or moderate, but that many voters – and on some issues, a majority of voters – are further to the left or right than the congressmen and legislators who represent them.

Edsall quotes Brockman’s explanation of the problem:

A voter’s ideal policy is significantly more extreme than the legislator’s on each of two policies. However, when mapping their views to one dimension it is the legislator who appears extreme. Why? When asked whether he would like to nudge the policy status quo in a conservative or liberal direction, this voter gives inconsistent answers, answering in a liberal manner on one question and a conservative manner on a different question. “On average,” then, this voter is in the ‘middle’ of the liberal-conservative continuum.”

One voter might support liberal policies calling for much higher taxes on the rich and also support a conservative stand in opposition to same-sex marriage. When the two responses are averaged, though, he or she would be defined as a moderate. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, when pollsters ask someone several questions, it’s often the case, argue the researchers, that a series of polarized positions get “averaged” into an overall centrist profile. The voter looks like a centrist, but that conclusion is wrong. This seems like a striking revelation, if true, because for decades we have been told that most Americans reside in the political center and reject extremes on both the left and right. This always sounded right but had some never quite reconciled with reality. For If Broockman and Ahler are right, then their findings would explain something that has puzzled me for years: why most Americans don’t object to polarizing aspects of the American political system such as gerrymandered districts and 90+% re-election rates for Congress. Such ridiculous aspects of American government would give rise to anger and protest in a truly centrist population but not in the kind of population Broockman and Ahler describe. In a population holding varied extreme views, the goal would never be a “government in the center” but to win as man polarizing battles as possible. Of course, in this kind of society, compromise would be a liability and the only thing that matters would be winning at almost any cost, which kind of sounds like the U.S. in 2014.

Sadly, notes Edsall, at least for people who really are in the center, this is what the researchers suggest has happened and will continue to happen:

In an additional paper published in September, “How Ideological Moderation Conceals Support for Immoderate Policies: A New Perspective on the ‘Disconnect’ in American Politics,” Ahler and Broockman reach a pessimistic conclusion:

Because each citizen prefers a different mix of policies, there is no one mix a politician could adopt that would broadly satisfy citizens. Thus it is natural that many citizens appear frustrated with the choices they have in American elections; yet, given the relatively idiosyncratic nature of citizens’ own preference bundles, it is also unclear that there is dramatic room for improvement.

They continue:

Because each citizen’s pattern of views across issues appears unique, each citizen is likely to be “disconnected” from the positions their representatives take in his or her own way, a situation which the election of more moderates – or more of any other one particular kind of politician – could not broadly resolve.

In other words, Americans can look forward to a recurrence of public dissatisfaction for which there is no remedy and to intractable conflict among elites resulting in the inability of either side to enact a durable agenda.

So welcome, perhaps, to America in the 21st Century: no longer a nation of centrist pragmatists (or so the legend says), we are now a nation picking sides on every major issue and preparing ourselves to fight for those positions against any attempt to find middle ground.

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