Political Centrists Are Road Kill In European Politics, Dare We Hope They Have the Same Fate in the United States?

Road Kill by Bradley Gordon, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/Original

From as early as I can remember in my interest in politics I’ve always seen the aphorism, “run to the base in the primary and move to the middle for the general.” It’s always puzzled me because it is very difficult to identify any major candidate who successfully did that and won. The base isn’t stupid, and if they stay home on election day because you’ve disavowed them in the general election campaign then you aren’t going to pick up enough “moderate” voters to make a difference. That so-called strategy has looked more an more bleak for several years. Now the alleged moderates have not only decreased in number but they actually don’t represent any view on the American political landscape. These two graphs are from the Pew Research Center’s report Political Polarization in the American Public.

CREDIT: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-1-growing-ideological-consistency/

CREDIT: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-1-growing-ideological-consistency/

Because our “first past the post” system crushes third parties like the bugs that they are, this polarization hasn’t been felt in American politics. But the same thing is happening in Europe and Australia/Oceania where parliamentary systems and you can see the effect.

Writing at the Washington Post, Harry Olsen has an intriguing piece on how centrist, “third way” politics are foundering basically everywhere after this philosophy had been declared victorious a couple of decades ago. The article is titled Don’t fool yourself. The political center won’t recover anytime soon and I don’t think the phenomenon is as surprising as some.

…Globally, the prevailing trend is rising support for anti-immigrant, nationalist populist parties — not a resurgence of the center.

That trend is easy to see almost anywhere you look. Estonia holds national elections in a week, and polls show the big winner is likely to be the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, which is set to more than double its share of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in the country. Spain’s Socialist president, Pedro Sánchez, recently called for a snap election after his government failed to pass a budget, but again, polls show an anti-immigrant, nationalist party called Vox will likely gain the most.

Vox has skyrocketed in support from less than 1 percent in 2016 to an average of around 11 percent in recent polls. A three-party, center-right coalition including Vox shocked the country by winning the state elections last December in the longtime Socialist bastion of Andalusia. It now looks like that coalition will govern Spain, too.

…Italy’s Lega is led by the notorious anti-immigrant and social conservative Matteo Salvini, who has garnered international attention with his opposition to admitting refugees from Muslim Northern Africa. Lega’s support has doubled within a year, from 17 percent in last March’s election to more than 35 percent today, easily making the brash populist the most popular political figure in Italy.

…That’s the coalition that currently governs New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, known for her environmental policies and deft use of social media, governs in coalition with the anti-immigrant and nationalist New Zealand First party. Their coalition agreement is opaque on the matter, but annual net migration has declined nearly 30 percent since the coalition took power in 2017.

…Quebec elected a center-right government for the first time in decades last year, partially on its promise to reduce immigration to the province by 20 percent. A new political party, the People’s Party of Canada, formed last year with a platform of free-market economic reforms and reducing immigration. It is already receiving more than 2 percent in the polls, and could easily gain more support ahead of this fall’s national election.

What Olsen paints as anti-immigrant is, I think, much more a natural resurgence of nationalism that has been tamped down…tribalism, dontcha know…by would-be elites married to a populism abetted by the breaking of the information monopoly that has large numbers of people looking at the policies promoted by those elites and asking “WTF??” because a blind man could see they do nothing to benefit current or future generations of their nation. Immigration is a lightning rod for this effect because in so many Western nations, the elites either have or have no problem with opening the flood gates to no-skills/low-skills immigrants who either survive on the dole (paid for by the citizen taxpayer) or compete for low-end jobs with disadvantaged citizens and who, either by their own desire or the benighted policies of the host nation, show no desire to assimilate or even pretend to assimilate.

Those bemoaning the loss of a “center” are actually crying over the demise of Failure Theater and the log-rolling and deal-making that benefited only a relatively small number of people to the detriment of most everyone else. They are complaining that the rule by elites is coming to an end now that everywhere people are seeing that what was marketed as “bipartisanship” was actually just a self-serving scam.

This is “how you got Trump” in a nutshell.

As Texas Democrat and populist Jim Hightower was noted for saying, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. The 2016 GOP primary demonstrated that in spades. The closer you were to being a “moderate” the sooner you looked like dead armadillo (Scott Walker, Jeb Bush). The closer your views were to those of the average voter the better your chance of survival. Ted Cruz understood that when he ran this commercial in 2016 highlighting the fact that illegal immigration was only supported by people whose jobs were not put at risk by it:

It will be shocking if the same dynamic doesn’t play out in the Democrat primary for 2020.

Fifty years ago, both US parties commanded a broad consensus opinion on the American Experiment. That consensus has unraveled. The two major parties now have very differing ideas about what the nation should look like and how our economic system should operate. The challenge in 2020 will be to appeal to those common values remaining with sufficient strength to bring along people who might not agree with large parts of your platform. It implies that rather than trying to appeal to moderates, the successful candidate will lock down and motivate their base and build enough common ground with some “moderate” elements to create a winning coalition. Will that common ground be reducing illegal immigration, as it is in Europe? Will it be restricting abortion and limiting the ability of the federal government to meddle in our lives? Or will it be guaranteed free day care, a $15/hour minimum wage and a stipend for those who, according to the Green New Deal, are “unwilling to work?” I really don’t know. Regardless, the unalloyed good here is that both sides are coming to see “moderates” as the feckless and uncertain allies that they are.

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