With the impending impeachment trial of President Trump and the presidential election this fall, the United States appears more politically polarized than at any time since the Civil War. The article that follows is a re-print of an article I wrote for Lagniappe on May 16, 2016, to explain the shift taking place in the American political spectrum. I made just a few modifications to update it to today’s situation.
The 2016 presidential election featured two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with the candidates having the highest unfavorable ratings in political history. Their campaigns were based on the notion “vote for me; I’m less despicable than my opponent.” Whatever happened to candidates who wanted to bring the nation together?
There is a theory called the “median voter model” that is often used to explain political competition. It predicts that the winning candidate in a two-party race will be the one who appeals most to voters in the middle of the political spectrum. It arrives at this conclusion by assuming voter preferences are normally distributed along an ideological spectrum ranging from liberal to conservative in which roughly two-thirds of the voters will be clustered near the middle (see figure 1), and that people will vote for the candidate closest to matching their own ideological preference.
But before a politician can run in the general election, they must first win their party’s nomination. And since Democrats tend to be more liberal and Republicans more conservative, the nominees will likely be to the left or right of the median voter. Thus, once a candidate secures their party’s nomination, they must reposition themselves, moderating positions they took in their primaries in order to appeal to the median voter in the general election (see figure 2).
Candidates who refuse to modify their position are likely to suffer landslide losses to more moderate opponents. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative, refused to modify his position and lost to Lyndon Johnson 61 to 39 percent. Then just eight years later, George McGovern was the Democrats’ nominee. A staunch liberal, he refused to modify his position and lost in a similar landslide to Richard Nixon. Thus, the “race to the middle” became an integral part of American presidential politics.
Some candidates are better able to modify their positions than others. For example, sitting presidents generally have an edge if they are not challenged for their party’s nomination because they can appear presidential and moderate while their opponent is busy appealing to their party’s base. But when they are challenged for their party’s nomination, it is a different matter. Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 is often attributed to Carter being forced to take very liberal positions because he was locked in a tough primary contest with Ted Kennedy, while Reagan, a well-known conservative, wrapped up the Republican nomination early and was able to position himself as the more moderate candidate.
But it didn’t work that way in 2016. One explanation is that the political spectrum is no longer a normally distributed “bell curve.” The Pew Research Foundation has tracked the ideological attitudes of American voters over several decades, and their data show that better educated voters are becoming more ideologically polarized. That is, the liberals are moving further to the left, while the conservatives are moving further to the right. Thus, instead of a normal distribution over the ideological spectrum, we now have a bi-modal distribution (see Figure 4). With few voters in the middle, the convergent process in the median voter model does not work.
But the Pew researchers also found that fewer educated voters and independents are becoming less ideological. In other words, they do not recognize or understand the political philosophies of either conservatism or liberalism. They care about issues and what affects them personally, rather than political philosophies. The “swing vote” still matters in close races, but the swing voter is no longer ideological.
There have been seismic realignments in American politics in the past. For example, in the 1880s and ‘90s Democrats favored free markets, low taxes, low tariffs, and less spending by government; Republicans favored social regulations such as liquor prohibition, high tariffs to protect industries, government involvement in economic development and inflationary monetary policy. Also, a very strong populist movement was emerging. Socialism versus capitalism was not a big issue back then.
I speculated in 2016 that we were witnessing the end of the left/right, liberal/conservative political paradigm and the rise of a new era of populism in America (see figure 5). President Trump appears more interested in firing up his base than expanding his appeal to more moderate voters, while Democrat candidates are villainizing Trump’s base and fighting among themselves over programs with little appeal to voters in the middle. There must be a path towards unity, but it hasn’t emerged so far and impeachment is not likely to help unite the nation.