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Center-Right Party

A functioning democracy needs parties that contest with each other to control the government and set policy. And the contest works best when policy differences are not extreme, such that a change in the governing party means a change of emphasis, not a radical change of direction. That’s the way American democracy has worked for most of our history, and the way the stable democracies elsewhere in the world work: competing parties work within a broad consensus.

That’s not how it’s working now. Since the 1990s, the once center-right Republican Party has evolved into an increasingly homogeneous hard-right party with very little room for centrists, or even people who have some grip on reality. That evolution has been confirmed and cemented under Donald Trump: we can call it the Trump Derangement Syndrome. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues to be a broad, increasingly diverse center-left party.

The result is a degree of polarization that is unhealthy for a working democracy. In the recent election, majorities of supporters of both parties expressed the fear that a victory for the other side would gravely damage the republic. Think back, say, to the 1992 contest between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Very few people, even among the strongest partisans, imagined that the very fate of the nation hung on who won the presidency. That’s because the Democrats were center-left and the Republicans center-right.

Trump’s Republican Party has stopped competing for centrist voters: their whole campaign was hard-right on steroids, aimed at juicing turnout among the firmest supporters of Donald Trump.

What we have now is a gaping hole on the center-right. Trump’s Republican Party has stopped competing for centrist voters: their whole campaign was hard-right on steroids, aimed at juicing turnout among the firmest supporters of Donald Trump. In contrast, Biden ran a classic center-left campaign in which he held the moderate and progressive Democrats and then went after the moderates (and even conservatives) who were either independents or anti-Trump Republicans.

Biden got the better of it, in spite of Trump turning out amazing numbers of hard-right supporters. The polls again underestimated Trump’s support, but Biden more than doubled Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin from 2016. He was able to do that because he had unchallenged access to centrist voters, including anti-Trump Republicans. Trump’s campaign simply wasn’t interested in them.

Biden’s coalition thus spanned from the left to the center-right. That makes for serious incoherency. It also means that many of the Republicans who voted for Biden turned around and voted GOP for the down-ballot offices. Biden had no coattails, and his chances for controlling the Senate now rest on winning both Georgia runoffs.

We would have a healthier democracy if we again had a center-right party to contest with the Democrats. 

But the existing, Trumpist Republican Party is not going anywhere. What about the long-standing failures of third parties to crack the two-party monopoly? In point of fact, the Republicans were the last third party to succeed: they replaced the Whigs in the late 1850s.

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To understand why a center-right third party might succeed, we have to take account of both the electoral system and political geography. Our electoral system at all levels is winner-take-all, whereby whoever gets the most votes wins. The most votes can be a plurality, or an absolute majority. In our system, the presidency is the granddaddy of winner-take-all contests.

The tendency of a winner-take-all system is to produce two major parties and to discourage voters from “wasting” their votes. But we can see from Canada and the UK that it’s possible to have more than two major parties if the parties have distinct geographical bases that enable them to win significant numbers of seats in parliament. Thus the Canadian Conservatives are strongly based in the prairie provinces, while the Liberals are strongest in Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes. And there are regional parties like the Scottish National Party in the UK, or the Parti Québecois in Québec.

We have the makings of such a geographic split in the US, as the Trump Republicans are strongly rooted in the South and the interior West, while the Democrats will win pretty consistently in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. A center-right party could win substantial numbers of seats from the Republicans in urban and suburban areas in the South and West, like Houston, while it could win from the Democrats in suburban areas of the Northeast and Pacific.

Public opinion data show why this is plausible. Pew Research in 2019 found the following distribution of self-described ideologies for a national sample:

  • Very Conservative 8%
  • Conservative 27%
  • Moderate 44%
  • Liberal 13%
  • Very Liberal 6%

Now, if Trump got 48 percent of the vote, he clearly had to pull about 13 percent from the moderates (assuming he got all the conservatives and very conservatives). If Biden got 52 percent, the majority of his vote had to come from moderates.

Because of his hard-right positions, Trump would have a very tenuous hold on any moderates who voted for him. Similarly for Biden, many of the moderates who voted for him voted Republican down-ballot: their commitment to Biden and the Democrats would be weak.

Thus there is a plausible case for building a center-right party that could win enough seats to deny either major party a majority in the House, and maybe win some Senate seats in places like Minnesota, Iowa or Ohio. From such a base, a center-right party could compete for the presidency. Perhaps it could displace the hard-right Republicans as the most likely alternative to the Democrats. Or, it could divide the right-of-center vote to allow a Democratic plurality in the popular vote for president. Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912 is a model for that, as Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose candidacy drew votes from Taft (who finished third), and Wilson was elected with a plurality of the popular vote and an Electoral College majority.

impeachment unavoidable

We need to recapture a political arena with at least two sane versions of reality. One such version cannot carry us in the long run.

John Peeler