The Persistence of Partisan Extremism

Movements Start Small #18

Here is a high level snapshot of American politics that might surprise you:

A few things really stick out: 

One, party identification is actually very low - and it has been dropping rapidly for a few decades. So, for example, when you hear 75% of Republicans think something, keep in mind that is less than 20% of the total population.

Two, the independent middle is very large. People increasingly have heterodox views and are swayable to vote with either party based on issues and candidates. As you might guess, I fall in this big group.

These facts beg the obvious question: why does it feel like we are more divided and partisan than ever?

Well, something big also changed starting a few decades ago. The political parties adopted a much more democratic primary system which severely weakened their ability to choose candidates. This has had profound impacts on our politics and dialog - none for the better in my view.

Here’s what happened.

At its most basic level, an election is a simple thing: whoever clears the 50% hurdle wins. So, the key is to win the “median” voter who is clearly in the big white cloud. When the parties were strong and selected candidates mostly in the “back room” they were laser focused on choosing candidates that held party principles at a high level, but could appeal to that median voter. Winning is the goal after all! The impact of this dynamic was both parties tended to nominate more moderate candidates. 

Over the course of the last few decades, grassroots efforts have pressured parties to have truly democratic primaries. No more back rooms, no more super delegates and surely no more brokered conventions. So we now have a full on election to pick candidates. Well, this turns the focus to a very different median voter in these primary elections. Suddenly the deciding vote for candidates is way out on each extreme. The big middle votes much less in these primaries and therefore the true believers have the power. 

While no system is perfect, this dynamic has had many negative implications. First off, you give enormous power to the extreme, most passionate voters. They choose the candidates and can throw you out (or even threaten to) if you don’t please them. Just see how Mitt Romney is being treated in party circles - or Joe Manchin. Second, politics becomes ever more cynical as candidates have to appease the extreme to get nominated, then ease as close to the center as possible to win that median general voter. Promises are made that just can’t be kept. The sense of having no backbone or principles grows, but the truth is the politicians are often in a vice between two very different constituents - their primary and general election voters.

While many hoped our political dysfunction would end with Trump, it clearly has not. He is a symptom and instrument of this dynamic. Trump remains so powerful because he is uniquely useful to both sides in this new game. How so? Trump energizes the hard core Republican party loyalists like no other. But, his personality disgusts the independents (and the median general voter). The opportunists in the Republican party want to latch on to his power to get nominations (or stave off being primaried). The Democrats want to hang on to him as the framing mechanism to win over the independents key to winning elections. Increasingly progressive policies and ideas are not popular to the big middle (poor performance in 2020 congressional races proved it), but Trump’s personal baggage proved less popular. Keep him as the enemy and like in 2020 you can win an election even without moderate support for your agenda. 

These dynamics play out in our discourse too. Media polarization keeps encroaching into our most established media institutions. Why? These extremes are where the real customers reside. The extremes just care a lot more about politics - they watch cable news and listen to talk radio - and increasingly are the few that buy newspapers. But, the clearly partisan headlines and story slants seep out to the general public and it all looks like a world gone mad. Those that care the most control the dialog. Bad news for us.

I am skeptical of any single factor explanation of something as complex as America’s intense division. But, this frame does help explain a lot of crazy behavior: broad GOP winks to Trump (despite him losing the election and driving terrible results in Georgia); the left’s desire to keep him in the news and as an imminent threat; Biden’s policies being further left than advertised (well, in truth, he ran on a progressive agenda, but the independents viewed him as moderate - a winning combo in this world); the increased partisanship of our major media outlets, and more.   

So, how do we break this cycle? It seems we either need to go back to strong parties or find new ways for the weak party system to better reflect the average voter. Less democracy seems unlikely anytime soon so I don’t expect back rooms to return. Reforms are emerging and being tested including rank choice voting, blanket and open primaries. They hold promise but many stand to lose should these go mainstream. At some point, the fever just might break. If the independent group keeps growing the dynamics could move the median primary voter well within the moderate zone. With a citizenry increasingly disenchanted with partisan hardball and governing dysfunction increasingly on display we can only hope it happens sooner than later. If you sit in the middle, the best thing you can do is ensure your voice is heard come primary time.    

Good Reads

  1. Primary extremism on display this week. Long time Democratic Mayor of Buffalo loses primary to an avowed socialist. Texas right-winger Chip Roy being threatened with primary from Trump faction. Small races, but big signal to anyone who makes a living in politics.

  2. John Stewart rants (maybe too hard) to Colbert about how politics interfered with a real investigation into the lab leak theory. Colbert’s response: when did you become a right winger? Ugh.

  3. I have linked to Martin Gurri and The Revolt of the Public many times because I think the author and his work offer the best insights into the turmoil of our time. Here’s a shortcut to get the highlights: Bari Weiss profiles and interviews Gurri on her podcast.

  4. Andrew Sullivan outlines the massive issues with Critical Race Theory...and the right’s attempts to ban it

  5. Innovation comes from everywhere and is often cheap. One teacher’s $60 innovation that makes online learning much more engaging. 

  6. Nice sleeper trains coming back to Europe! Speed isn’t everything.