Whither The Center?
Browsing the Centersphere, I noted Sol Kleinsmith of "Rise of the Center" worrying about the state of the political center in American politics. In his "Must Read" post last week, he quotes a National Journal article "The Center Falls Apart:"
"National Journal's vote ratings in 1982 found, to cite just one example, 60 senators who could credibly be described as operating in the ideological middle. Back then, 36 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted in ways that put them between the most liberal Senate Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. The number of those in the broad middle in the House was 344... In the most recent Congress, not one senator fell into this middle category. In the 111th Congress, not one Republican fell into the ideological spectrum between the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and the most liberal Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio. Neither did any Democrat. In the House, the number of in-betweeners fell to seven (even after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “revolution,” the House number had been 226)."
"The Center is Rising… its just we’re rising from almost nothing, and we don’t even have a foundation to start from, so we have a lot of work to do before we can mount a real opposition."
There are "Independents" and then there are Independents
he complains about the liberal bent of an Independent conference he attended, sponsored by the venerable Independent Voting Organization:
He is completely correct about the political proclivity of the organization. They are as committed to a progressive "big government" agenda as the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But it is also true that as an organization, they can legitimately claim a historical provenance to the single most significant Independent voter "foundation building" of the modern era - the Perot Reform Party. Despite Kleinsmith's assertions to the contrary, an Independent voter foundation was built and still exists. The Reform Party did build an Independent foundation, and that foundation remains the underpinning of the Independent Voting organization today.I knew IndependentVoting.org is a liberal group, stating openly that they’re the “Progressive Wing of the Independent Movement”, but I thought they’d set that aside, ala No Labels style, for a conference of independents. Instead I heard just as much vilification of the right at this rally as you would find a meeting of democrats. Calling this even the Conference of Independents makes as much sense as their spin, and outright lies, on Top Two “Choke Point” Primary rules, their claim that Obama is (I kid you not… Jackie Salit says this all the time) an independent and their doublespeak calling what is going on with independents around the country is a movement."
Kleinsmith's lament reveals the organization's foundation was/is built on sand. It is built on the illusion that there is a large and viable independent voting coalition in the American electorate. His complaint about the politics of the organization, and - from the other side - Jackie Salit's refusal to acknowledge the Tea Party as a legitimate part of the Independent "movement" - speaks directly to the absurd triumphalism regularly trumpeted by Salit and others:
"This is an exciting and challenging time for independent voters and for the independent movement. Independents are now 40% of the electorate. Polls show that 41% of college students consider themselves indies as do 35% of African Americans under the age of 30."
Whither the Independents?Independents" actually vote as partisans. In fact they vote so reliably partisan that they cannot be distinguished from those self-identifying Democrat or Republican based on their voting record.
Another problem when discussing the plight of "The Center" is sloppy semantics. The terms "Centrist", "Independent", and "Moderate" are used almost interchangeably across the political spectrum by both new and traditional media as if they describe a set of voters with a shared political perspective. The reality is that "The Center" may be best described by Kurt Vonnegut's creation in Cat's Cradle - as a "granfalloon":
"A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle), is defined as a "false karass." That is, it is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless."
Historically, the most meaningful 3rd Party or Independent efforts have organized around personalities (Perot, Nader, Anderson, Wallace, Roosevelt), and they are meaningful only to the degree they succeed in affecting national elections as spoilers. If he chooses to run, Michael Bloomberg has the potential to fulfill that role in 2012, with exactly that effect. There is no history of a third party succeeding in American politics, unless one of the two major parties self destructs, and is replaced by the new party, still leaving only two parties standing.
Effective voting coalitions can also be organized around single issue politics. A candidate issue must evoke intense passion to be effective. Examples include war, abortion, segregation, gay marriage, discrimination and most recently - irresponsible deficit spending. Call me a cynic, but I just don't think that demanding polite and civil debate is a sufficiently compelling issue to organize an effective voting coalition. Even issues that evoke intense passion tend to be short-lived as effective Independent organizing principles. The movements built on them tend to remain independent for only as long as it takes one of the major parties to co-opt and subsume the issue into their partisan base.
It is important to be realistic about the size and nature of the truly Independent vote that can actually be seen to swing from one election cycle to the next. The best analysis I've seen over the the last few cycles comes from The Cato Institute. In a series of policy studies, they've identified a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" voting block that has been documented to swing in the 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. The Cato Institute being the Cato Institute, it identifies these voters as closet libertarians. That identification is a reach. These voters do not self-identify as libertarian, and many would recoil from strong libertarian positions.
Whatever you want to label them, these voters represent the real Independent voting base in the electorate. They can be measured, they can be identified, we can understand what they are voting for and against, and they swing their vote in a measurable predictable way. They represent 14% of the electorate. That is your Independent voting base. If you want to build a realistic voting strategy and political strategy around Independents - recognize first that your strategy is based on, at most, 14% of the vote. Anything else is building on sand and mirage.
This begs the question - how do you herd these cats? And if you do herd them into a voting block, how do you avoid the spoiler effect with only 14% of the vote?
The 14% Solution
"Wisconsin Illustrates Hazard of One Party Rule in Era of Major Party Arrogance":
"The answer really is simple. We need to elect more moderates and centrist independents, and we need to not allow either party to have complete control of government anymore. We need to have split government at every level, to at least force the two parties to have to gain the support of a handful of non members to pass anything. They just can’t be trusted anymore."
"At Rise of the Center, Solomon makes the case for multi-party government on the basis of one simple fact: the Democratic and Republican parties cannot be trusted with power."
Alas, many are called, but few are chosen. Many will agree "in general" with the notion that divided government is a good thing, but few will specifically vote against their natural partisan inclination to maintain that state. Kleinsworth and Eris will be an interesting test.
They are both self-described independent centrists, but see different solutions to the two party hegemony in our political system. Kleinsworth thinks the solution is electing moderate centrists in both parties.* Eris thinks the solution is a viable third party.* Both express distrust of one party rule. The question is - How will they vote in 2012 if, as it looks now, the only logical divided government vote will be a vote to re-elect Barack Obama?
We'll see. In the meantime, I will provisionally be inducting both into the 2012 Coalition of the Divided. Just as soon as I get around to posting it.**
- SK - Centrist/Rightish/Moderate/Compromiser
- DE - Independent/Rightish/Discordian/3rd Partonian
- MW - Independent/libertarianish/Discordian/Dividist.
**UPDATE I: 1-March-11
Done. Got an early start on the Coalition of the Divided this cycle. The C.O.D. 2012 Election Edition is up and running.
UPDATE II: 3-March-11
Speaking of which, the Dividist notes that Damon Eris at Poli-Tea has also weighed in with a thoughtful critique. Misguided and wrong, but thoughtful. The Dividist will need to cogitate on this a bit, and better understand the concept of a "fractal fallacy" before responding - probably over the weekend.
UPDATE III: 6-March-11
The Dividist's reply to Damon Eris (and Kleinsmith commenting on his blog) is apparently unable to pass the google span filter muster. So the Dividist is instead copying here the response he attempted to put there:
I intended to respond to some of the issues raised in this post, but see I first need to deal with the comments. Specifically this:"I ignored the part of his post where he vomited that garbage about independents can't vote for one of the two major parties." - SKI actually like a lot of the stuff that Kleinsmith does, but this makes me wonder whether the guy has some reading comprehension issues. Either that, or he did not actually read this post. I don't really care whether he reads my stuff, I just don't understand why he would post such a virulent reply without bothering to read and understand the post first.
Nowhere in this blog post (in fact, nowhere in any of the posts I've written over the almost 5 years of blogging at DWSUWF) did I say anything remotely like "independents can't vote for one of the two major parties". In fact, that is the exact opposite of the voting heuristic I promote on this blog.
I advocate that a percentage of the true Independents (those who do not vote identically as partisans) should always vote at the federal level in a manner that would prevent either major party from controlling the executive and both legislative houses. To whit - always voting for divided government. That means as a practical reality, I am advocating that true independents should almost always vote for one of the two major parties at the federal level. In the last election that meant voting straight GOP for the House and Senate. In the next election it means voting to re-elect Barack Obama, as that is likely to be the only way to avoid One Party Republican Rule into 2013.
Yes, it is conceivable that a third party vote could be considered a "divided government" vote, because of the spoiler effect. For a hypothetical example, should Mike Bloomberg run as an independent in 2012, he would have no chance of winning, but would likely have a similar effect as Perot did in 1992 drawing more from the GOP vote and contributing to the election of a Democratic President. A vote for Bloomberg in 2012 instead of a vote for the GOP challenger would also be a vote to reelect Obama and retain divided government.
Interestingly, Kleinsmith does not seem to notice that his less-than-civil outburst is more critical of the political theme of the Poli-Tea blog than it is of my blog. As I read this, it is actually D.Eris at PoliTea who is specifically advocating that Independents should almost never vote for one the two major parties. Perhaps Kleinsmith is having as much trouble comprehending what Eris' blog is about as he is comprehending mine.
My sense is that all three blogs have similar policy goals and see independents as the key to a voting strategy to get there. PoliTea (PT) advocates that Independents should strategically vote for 3rd parties. Kleinsmith's Rise of the Center (ROTC) advocates that Independents should strategically vote for Moderate/Centrist/Polite candidates. Here at DWSUWF I advocate that true Independents should first and foremost tactically vote for divided government. Of the three, I submit that the divided government voting heuristic has the greatest likelihood of succeeding for the foreseeable future, and having an actual policy impact on our federal government.
This is all about how to organize the Independent vote in a predictable and meaningful way. The Kleinsmith ROTC strategy is problematic on two counts. First, it is difficult enough to try and herd the Independent voter "cats" without trying to organize around a concept as ambiguous and as subject to partisan interpretation as whether a candidate is actually moderate/centrist/polite enough to deserve the Indy vote. Look no further than the very next post on the PT blog, where Kleinsmith is arguing with another Indy on whether Obama is a centrist, to see this problem in action.
Second, is a problem that Kleinsmith shares with the PT blog, which is overstating the size of truly Independent vote. Yes, it is a fact that something like 40% of the electorate self-identify as Independents. The problem is that 2/3 of those so-called Independents have voting records that are indistinguishable from those voters self-identifying as partisan Republicans and Democrats.
The problem is not that they vote R or D. The problem is that they are in fact functional partisans by the way they vote at the Federal level. 1/3 of the "Independents" always vote like partisan Republicans. 1/3 of the "Independents" always vote like partisan Democrats. This is not a "fractal fallacy". This is documented historical fact. They are not voting that way because they don't have other choices. They vote that way because they are more comfortable with and lean toward one party or the other, and where the rubber meets the road, in the voting booth, they are in fact pure partisan voters at the federal level.
The correct way to view the electorate as a practical voting reality, is as 86% Partisan, split down the middle, with a 14% Independent swing vote.
Any voting strategy that presumes or requires something different to succeed, is built on sand.
Now that is fair.