As George W. Bush’s approval ratings sink below 40 percent, and the GOP and all its projects, from the Iraq War to Social Security “reform” to Hurricane Katrina recovery plans, seem to be going to pieces, we are hearing on every side that it won’t be enough for Democrats to rub their hands in glee (however discreetly). They must come up with their own plans. They must offer the country something positive to embrace. One response to this need comes from two former advisers to President Clinton–William Galston, now of the University of Maryland, and Elaine Kamarck, now of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They have produced a report called The Politics of Polarization, a sequel to one they wrote in 1989 for the Democratic Leadership Council. Their main piece of advice, now as before, is that “seizing the center remains the key to victory.”
The word “center,” of course, has many possible meanings. One is simply the political space where most of the voters are, whatever their views. Defined thus, a centrist strategy is a mere tautology. Any party that wins over a majority of the electorate will have seized “the center”: A winning strategy is one that wins. Since the contrary idea–a jolly “let’s persuade only 40 percent of the voters!”–is highly unattractive, any “centrist” strategy has an obvious built-in appeal.
A slightly different meaning of the word–and this is the one the authors have in mind–is the collection of specific opinions held by a majority of the voters at a given time. A centrist strategy therefore gears its message to those views, which usually correspond inexactly to the views of either party and so are in a certain way “between them”–in the center. The alternative to this strategy, which Galston and Kamarck reject, is to gear the message to the party “base,” its true believers, while hoping somehow to add enough of the less committed voters to win. (These are the “undecided voters,” or “swing voters,” whose extremely vague or even clueless opinions are often sought around election time in respectful interviews on extremely boring television programs.)
Still another meaning of “the center” is conceivable. It’s possible to imagine a truly substantive center comprising calm, reasonable people who, whether they are in a majority or not, reject the violent or insane views of others, defined as extreme. “Center,” in this sense, would mean something like “moderate.” For example, in Germany in the early 1930s, there were sensible people who were neither Communists nor Nazis. Unfortunately, they were in a minority, as election results showed, and so were not in the center in either of the two previously mentioned senses of the word. (The Nazis were technically in the political center at the time.)
The report’s thesis about American politics today, backed by many charts and graphs, is that the party faithful are more polarized than before, meaning that both Republicans and Democrats are more likely to support their party’s candidate no matter what. But in such a contest, self-professed “conservatives,” who make up 34 percent of the vote, will beat self-professed “liberals,” who make up only 21 percent. Therefore Democrats, instead of appealing to their fired-up but fatally slender base, must frame their message to please the large pool of self-styled “moderates,” numbering 45 percent. The technicians of the Democratic Party no doubt will be arguing for the next couple of years about whether or not a centrist strategy is really the path to victory.