Ezra Klein in the NY Times explains Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, but Republicans Don’t. Polarization has changed the two parties — just not in the same way.
Charlie Sykes (Bulwark) describes Klein’s analysis as “definitive. The theory behind the Sanders campaign is that Democrats can safely ignore centrists because he would so energize the nascent democratic socialist base. But Klein argue that Democrats don’t have the luxury of abandoning centrist voters.”
Here is some more of Klein’s thinking about polarization and electoral politics.
American politics has been dominated by the Democratic and Republican Parties since the Civil War. That gives us the illusion of stability — that today’s political divisions cut roughly the same lines as yesteryear.
But in recent decades, the two parties have been changing, and fast. Those changes are ideological — the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.
This is the root cause of intensifying polarization: Our differences, both ideological and demographic, map onto our party divisions today in ways they didn’t in the past. But the changes have not affected the parties symmetrically.
Put simply, Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. They can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.
Appealing to Democrats requires appealing to a lot of different kinds of people with different interests. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on white voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and mixed-race voters. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christian voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, agnostics, Buddhists and so on. Three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative, while only half of Democrats call themselves liberals — and for Democrats, that’s a historically high level.
The Democratic Party is not just more diverse in who it represents; it’s also more diverse in whom it listens to. A new Pew survey tested Democratic and Republican trust in 30 different media sources, ranging from left to right. Democrats trusted 22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust. (The other trusted sources, in case you were wondering, were Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)
Republicans are trapped in a dangerous place: They represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes. This was popularized in the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay arguing that conservatives needed to embrace Trump, because if he failed, “death is certain.” You could hear its echoes in Attorney General William P. Barr’s recent speech, in which he argued that “the force, fervor and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion” poses a threat unlike any America has faced in the past. “This is not decay,” he warned, “it is organized destruction.”
This is why one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization. If Republicans couldn’t fall back on the distortions of the Electoral College, the geography of the United States Senate and the gerrymandering of House seats — if they had, in other words, to win over a majority of Americans — they would become a more moderate and diverse party. This is not a hypothetical: The country’s most popular governors are Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland. Both are Republicans governing, with majority support, in blue states.
A democratization agenda isn’t hard to imagine. We could do away with the Electoral College and gerrymandering; pass proportional representation and campaign finance reform; make voter registration automatic and give Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve. But precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.
The alternative to democratizing America is scarier than mere polarization: It is, eventually, a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.
In the meantime, though, it’s important to recognize the truth about our system: Both parties have polarized, but in very different ways, and with very different consequences for American politics.
You can fill in the gaps by reading more of Klein’s essay here or by reading his book “Why We’re Polarized”.
Ezra Klein is founder and editor at large of Vox, host of the “The Ezra Klein Show” podcast and author of “Why We’re Polarized,” from which this essay is adapted.