A centrist party for non-Trumpists and non-progressives might save the US
If it raises a war chest and attracts enough politicians from both sides, it could represent more than half the people ideologically and win most states
It is commonly thought that the United States has a two-party system, but there is in fact no reason other than inertia for this to be the case. While getting on the ballot can be difficult, nothing in the law excludes a third party, or even a ninth. And with both parties leaning toward extremes, creating a large centrist party could change the country’s dysfunctional politics.
As we gear up for the 2024 presidential election, and look forward to a future that might better reflect the country’s excellence and dynamism, we might consider whether the two-party reality has outlived its usefulness.
It’s critical, because the Democrats and Republicans, in different ways and to different degrees, are going off the rails.
The Republicans are the simpler case. On issue after issue, they hold policies that run counter to the clear American majority.
Their stance against even the mildest form of gun control — say, a renewal of the assault weapons ban (which is popular) and strong background checks — is the most obvious and egregious example. The party is simply too beholden to a well-funded gun lobby, and dependent on a small minority of fanatical voters for whom guns are the single issue.
But there is much more. The Republicans’ unpopular assault on abortion rights — to the point of opposing the procedure even for minors who have been raped — already cost them in the 2022 midterms, yet they show no signs of backing down.
Their skepticism on elementary climate change mitigation policy makes America look ridiculous on the world stage and is an affront to future generations. Their refusal to reform a health care system that offers no universal baseline of service (desired by seven in 10 Americans and a basic right in almost all other rich countries) plays a big role in declining American life expectancy.
Economic inequality also seems to trouble Republicans little despite the fact that the United States is by far the most unequal country in the developed world. That puts them in opposition to most Americans. In 2016 they rode the wave of working-class anger over this to victory, but then turned on their own voters and (again) lowered taxes for the rich, further increasing inequality. That’s before considering Republican-led tariffs that raised the price of goods for U.S. consumers.
This is why the Republicans won a majority of the popular vote in presidential elections once only in the last 35 years, in 2004, as the country rallied behind George W. Bush after 9/11.
That is why the Republicans are hell-bent on maintaining the anti-majoritarian aspects of the Electoral College and the Senate, which vastly overrepresent small, conservative states and enable a minority to impose its will. And why they have turned gerrymandering and voter suppression into an art form.
It is also why they’ve taken to challenging any election loss that is not by a landslide. It is excruciating to behold, especially in a society that has traditionally disdained sore losers and compulsive liars.
So, all of this being true, why are Republicans still in a position to deploy dirty tricks during close votes? The answer is that many voters in the center — call them old-school conservatives — are even more afraid of the Democrats. It’s a little hard to believe, and it’s also hard to discuss honestly without risking the ire of the progressive mob — which is precisely the problem.
Instead of sitting back and reaping the benefits of their popular key policies, the Democrats have moved too far in the direction of becoming an aggressive far-left movement with unpopular positions on race and gender issues and an orthodoxy so strict that it leads to what the right calls “cancel culture.”
Most people do not want the trampling of free discourse in academia, in newsrooms, and in boardrooms in the name of woke social justice. They do not want speakers and professors hounded off campuses for holding unpopular positions, or careers quickly “cancelled” because it’s the path of least resistance, or tribal and other “identities” overwhelming any sense of a national one.
They certainly don’t want to wallow in excess red tape, defund the police, make city centers a safe space for criminals and drug addicts (regardless of their reasons), or encourage small children to explore alternative gender identities and feel guilt over a privilege not of their making.
While these are not the policies of the Democratic Party — yet, anyway — the reality in some Democrat-run areas, like San Francisco, is too close for comfort. That’s a gift to the Republicans and a big reason why they’re still competitive.
Mercifully, the extreme wing of the Democratic Party does not yet represent a majority among its voters. Less than 10 percent of the U.S. electorate describe themselves as “progressive.” That’s quite different from the situation with the Republicans. In that party, even new candidates feel they must toe a Trumpist line, with or without former President Donald Trump. Despite falling support, about half of Republicans still say they’d back him in a primary. His brand of grievance politics, which verges on outright racism and is certainly nativist and isolationist to the core, has enthralled the base.
And that, I argue, is the actual landscape of American politics today. About a third of the voters are Trumpist — probably a majority of Republican primary voters. Less than a sixth are in any way progressives. And the remainder — which mathematically means more than half and therefore a plurality among the three groups — are somewhere in the center.
Many liberal-leaning centrists feel closer to conservative-leaning centrists than to the progressives. Many conservative-leaning centrists are deeply uncomfortable in the same party as the Jan. 6 mob. Put simply, President Joe Biden and Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney could dwell together more easily than with the poles in their parties.
Centrists are united by a basic fidelity to liberal democracy. Both versions of them believe in freedom of speech. Both are patriots but also globalists who believe in a principled version of America leading the free world. Both are capable of a sense of humor.
At the moment, it’s the Republican Party that’s most deeply in thrall to the extremes. It’s the moderates in that party who need an escape hatch. Paradoxically, that places the onus on centrist Democrats to reach out to them somehow.
It’s possible to put together a series of proposals that would address the points that bridge the gaps between them. These might include:
- Sensible gun control;
- A significant expansion of Medicare;
- Reasonable climate policy;
- A vast simplification of the tax code, including major breaks for the middle class and tax hikes for those earning over $500,000 a year;
- Police and education reform aimed at helping minorities bridge the catastrophic gaps in society;
- A tough policy on crime coupled with zero tolerance of wanton police brutality;
- A fast-track to citizenship for immigrants already here combined with strict policing of the borders;
- And an infrastructure overhaul combined with policies aimed at returning employment to benighted parts of the country and drawing back some industries that have migrated abroad.
In short, an easy-to-understand raft of proposals that appeals to the half or more of the electorate that is somewhere in the center.
I’m not predicting this will happen imminently. From the Democratic side especially, another disastrous election cycle may be required. Say, if Trump wins in 2024. Or if many more Hispanics abandon the party because they are, well, conservative — which would upend the arrogant narrative of a natural and growing Democratic majority.
It would require a pincer movement: at the local level, in Congress, and within the donor class. Imagine a $20 billion war chest raised from socially responsible plutocrats put at the disposal of a revolutionary cadre of centrist candidates, and those politicians already in place willing to join the revolution.
If such an enterprise takes shape, it could upend politics, and win in most states. It might end the acrimony between the Red and Blue Americas that’s drowning us in bad karma and tearing the nation apart.
(The article appeared originally in Newsweek)