Galston & Kamarck on Moderates

Why don’t Democratic Party politicians say and do more liberal stuff? The answer is clearly explained in a new paper from William Galston and Elaine Kamarck on “The Still-Vital Center: Moderates, Democrats, and the Renewal of American Politics”. They show that Democratic Party politicians can win if and only if they secure large majorities of the vote from self-identified moderates, and then self-identified moderates have different opinions from liberals about several important issues. I really strongly recommend the paper as a dose of Real Talk for folks (myself included) who are more inclined to take the liberal side of these issues:

50% of moderates, versus 29% of liberals, believe that the federal government has too much power. 52% of moderates, versus only 32% of liberals, say that “government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.” […] 61% of moderates think that labor unions have too much power, compared to 48% of liberals. […] Moderates are more likely than are those to their left to think that poor people have become too dependent on the government, that too many people want to get ahead without working hard and making sacrifices, and that we have already made the changes needed to give African-Americans equal rights. Only 37% of moderates, but fully 59% of liberals, believe that the federal government is responsible for reducing income differences between rich and poor.

Much less persuasive are their prescriptions. Galston and Kamarck say that political institutions should be altered so as to increase the voice of moderates in the process. They offer three proposals for this, open primaries, redistricting reform, and super-majority selection of congressional leadership.

Now they concede that (“Brookings’ Thomas Mann cautions that there is little data to support a link between independent redistricting and changes in Congress”) there’s actually no reason to think the redistricting process has anything to do with what’s troubling them, so I’m not sure what this idea is doing there. Requiring a super-majority to elect the Speaker of the House seems like it would just render the Speakership a meaningless office. Real leadership power would rest with some kind of shadow caucus leaders who actually spoke for their members. This leaves us with open primaries, where again I wonder what the evidence is. Do open states like South Carolina and Vermont really give us moderate legislators? As they argue in some detail, the striking thing about American primaries is that nobody votes in them. They way to give moderates more voice in the political process, it seems to me, would be to organize them and get them more engaged with the process.

Last, I’d say the most salient feature of the American political system is its large status quo bias. Legislation almost always requires bipartisan support to become a law. You can think this is a good feature of the system or a bad one, but it’s certainly a feature. Under the circumstances, Jamelle Bouie is right to question the premise that moderates somehow lack voice. Party line legislating is extremely rare. In the past 20 years, I can only think of two significant bills—the 1993 Clinton budget and the Affordable Care Act—that passed without some measure of bipartisanship. This is why I think it’s difficult to come up with persuasive ideas for solving the “problem,” it’s a problem that doesn’t really seem to exist.