What is the “Center 80”? It represents that large majority of centrist Americans that our two parties have forgotten about in the noise of polarizing rhetoric.
As both parties shift towards ideological purity and increasingly cater to the most vocal elements of their constituents, our parties only vaguely resemble the wants and beliefs of most of the people they supposedly represent.
If someone would recognize our strengths, speak for our value, and seek to accomplish our goals, they would dominate the political landscape.
People Haven’t Changed, the Parties Have
Seeing how polarized party ideologies have become, you might think that the growing party divide is caused by a growing divide among average Americans. That both parties are responding to the changing beliefs of their constituents.
This is not what’s happening.
What’s so odd about politics today is that while the parties increasingly cater to the extremes, Americans are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Moderate.
If you combine everyone who considers themselves strong Republicans or strong Democrats, that number only adds up to a small fraction of Americans, about 1 in 4. That means that 3 in 4, a very large majority, doesn’t fit into the social space of either parties far sides.
What’s even more surprising is that this number hasn’t really changed in almost 50 years.
People Seem Extreme When Given Only Two Extreme Options
The General Social Survey has been tracking the beliefs of Americans since 1972. You can check out all the things they keep track of here.
When you look at people’s party identification, two facts stand out.
First, the middle, who don’t hold strong opinions either way, dominate the chart. The data shows it’s not even close.
Second, it’s amazing how little has changed.
Sure, there’s a percent or two difference but that’s pretty minor and does little to explain the rise in party polarization.
Polls like this from Gallup, would have you believe that people have moved towards the poles.
But that’s due to the changing nature of the question itself, not the people answering the question. If you’re only given two choices and those choices drift to the extremes, so too must your answer.
This is a problem of increasingly polar choices, not increasingly polar people.
People Vote Based on Ideological Proximity
Let’s picture the political landscape as ten people spread across the political spectrum with black lines representing the Democratic and Republican platforms (the start of strong Democrat or Republican).
People act based on their identity. Voting is no different. So, they’ll support the closest party that is most consistent with their beliefs and self-image. Persons 1, 2, & 3 consistently vote Democrat and 8, 9, & 10 consistently vote Republican because the party platforms are closest to their identity.
Person 4 will reluctantly vote Democrat, not because they have strong feelings for the party but because the Republican line is too far away. Similarly, Person 7 will vote Republican with reservations.
This means that elections come down to the two in the middle, Persons 5 and 6.
Sway them your way and your party wins. The party wins not because it strongly represents what those people believe but because they have no other option except to not vote (which many choose to do but that’s a whole separate issue altogether).
While simple, these charts explain a lot because the data reflects the reality of how people identify themselves in relation to a party. It explains for instance, why Trump consistently maintains a 30% to 40% approval rating and 50% disapproval rating regardless of his actions.
Persons 8, 9, & 10 support him because his line is close. If he’s behaving, Person 7 joins him for 40% approval while on bad weeks when Trump manages to lose his support, Trump drops back down into the 30% range.
Similarly, Persons 1 – 5 consistently dislike him for a 50% disapproval rating.
Again, though simplistic, the chart works because it reflects how people actually think and act. They act on their gut then rationalize it afterwards. This concept doesn’t just explain Trump’s approval ratings, it helps explain the ratings of all past modern Presidents. Current events might shift sentiment for a time, but historical data shows how quickly people settle back into an equilibrium.
The actions of politicians have surprisingly little effect because people aren’t supporting a particular person, they’re estimating the distance between where they are and where their choices are and then choosing the closest of the two alternatives.
As I discussed before, in complex situations where cause and effect are unclear, people rely on identity to make rational, efficient choices.
How a Center 80 Would Dominate the Political Landscape
But let’s imagine if Democrats took a more centrist approach.
The Democratic line will always be a little to the left because some of the bedrock principles of equality and liberty, such as the freedom to marry whomever you choose, are considered liberal.
Even with the line a little to the left, it’s pretty easy to see why this platform would be a dominant political powerhouse.
Persons 1 thru 3 would still vote for it because it’s still much closer than the Republican line even though it’s not as hard left as they’d like.
Persons 4 and 5 would definitely support it because it closely reflects their position. And it’s pretty close to person 6.
Notice that person 7 is in the middle of the two platforms. Win them over and you’ll have a dominant 7 to 10 block. And even if person 7 decided to go right, that still leaves a very strong 6 to 10 majority.
It’s a Race for the Middle and Democrats are Losing that Race
The key to all this is recognizing the disconnect between how Americans actually feel and the rhetoric of extremism created by the loudest, most militant voices on the Internet and social media. Once you recognize that the large majority of Americans, the Center 80, are centrists, it’s pretty easy to see why whomever captures the center wins.
If Democrats recognize these facts, a centrist left would dominate the political landscape instead of continually battling to break the 50% mark.
This is what made great social change possible. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the creation of Medicare and social security, welfare, and the Civil Rights Act.
But here’s the problem. Republicans recognize this dynamic too. So, the race is on for which party can craft a clear centrist identity.
While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Republicans are winning this race. And not only that, they’re picking up speed. Or more accurately… the Democrats are falling behind.
As Republicans assimilate more of the middle’s symbolic landscape… business, work, security, and even the American flag itself, Democrats are doing the opposite. In seeking to create contrast and carve out a unique identity, they are abandoning more of the things that regular Americans care about, leaving them with hard leftist approaches like socialism that repel rather than attract mainstream Americans.
This is not only the surest way for Democrats to lose near-term elections, but because symbols, meaning, and identity are extremely hard to alter once formed, this is a recipe for guaranteeing losses for decades to come.
This might seem obvious… to win elections, figure out what people want, and provide it. Recognizing the vast majority of Americans are centrists needs to be the starting point for any enduring platform with the strength to enact meaningful social change.