Return to the Third-way

Everyone knows partisan politics is divided.  The cliché is that modern politics is in a flux of extremes.  Looking at the current GOP primary field would seem to support this argument with candidates such as Trump and Cruz in the lead.  The level-headed adults have left the building (Rubio) with the exception for Kasich, who clings to the remote possibility of being spoiler at the July convention.

What is more in doubt is the chicken-or-the-egg quandary which asks, “Are politicians extreme because of their base, or is the base moving toward extremism because of the bent of current political leaders?”  Looking back at recent history, American Presidents of the not to distant past seemed fairly moderate in both parties.  Even the much abhorred Neocon movement of the early 2000s is a mild salve compared to the frenzy of the Tea Party.  Now emerging on the political left is a surprising showing by Bernie Sanders (I-VT).  But even Sanders, with his social populism, is a mirror of the trend of political divide in America.  As Trump engages with the sizable political fringe on the right, Sanders has found a niche on the left to exploit.

Conventional wisdom holds that political extremism exists in both parties, though arguably more obvious in the GOP, but for the sake of electability, moderate politicians are selected to run in general elections.  George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are Presidents, while Bob Dole and Mitt Romney are candidates, who are politically moderate examples of the GOP by today’s standards.  Correspondingly, President Bill Clinton is the founder of the New Democrats from the Third Way movement that came to power by advocating moderate policies and appealing to centrist voters.[1]  President Barrack Obama, despite allegations to the contrary, is also a center-left Democrat who won power by appealing to a coalition of voters.

Since 2010, when the rise of the Tea Party and the loss of the Democrat controlled House of Representatives, the run-to-the-middle approach of the GOP floundered as more moderate Republicans were unable to advance against more radical primary challengers.  Conservative and libertarian populism meant that successful Republican politicians often had to cater to the whims of the far-right of the party.

Now, there is a danger that the caricature of the angry voter who has found a voice in Donald Trump’s candidacy has emerged in the Democrat Party.  While mainstream Democrats are often marginally aligned with the belief of the fringe-left, politicians like Elizabeth Warren have galvanized the liberal parallel to the Tea Party—the Occupy (Wall Street) movement.  Other groups have emerged with narrowly focused interest but a huge public presence, like the Black Lives Matter movement, to dominate liberal political discourse.  It would seem that liberal groups are adopting the divisive zero-sum attitude of their conservative counterparts.

Occupy (Wall Street) has some legitimate points it makes on the topics of income inequality and the control of wealth.  Black Lives Matter also makes fair criticism that there is a problem with structural discrimination in society, specifically in law enforcement.  What the dangers the groups represent is found in a spectrum from a lack of a coherent plan that tackles the root of their niche point of advocacy to unrealistic and poorly constructed plans that have no chance of success, such as Sanders’ implausible plan for single-payer healthcare.[2]

Now that Sanders has entered the national political dynamic, away from his ideological-island territory of Vermont (greater New England), he is playing a dangerous game by giving mainstream political attention and support to the fringe-left advocacy groups.  He has gained a significant amount of success through populist ideology.  Unfortunately, giving undue credibility to fringe-groups hurts actual discourse as the groups have less incentive to moderate their message to less friendly audiences.  Fringe groups then double down on their rhetoric with even more ideologically impassioned voices emerging, rather than the ones coming from a place of logic and well-formed articulation.  The reality is that ideologically based advocacy groups have their biggest cheerleader and validator in Sanders; the face of angry populism on the left.

Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for President is supposed to be a call for a political revolution.  What he might actually do is damage the Democrat brand.  To Sanders’ credit, he has been able to capture the support and enthusiasm of large numbers of voters who typically shun the political process with apathy and inaction.[3]  These enthusiastic foot soldiers in Sanders’ revolution identify with his fervor.  They are the true believers.  One might cynically say they swallowed the bait hook-line-and-sinker.  But like the proverbial fish in the fishing analogy, one they get off the hook, so much harder it is to get them to bite again.  That’s perhaps why polls show that a quarter of Sanders’ supporters won’t back Clinton in the case that she was selected as nominee to the Democrat Party.[4]

That’s right.  By Sanders whipping his voting base into an ideological frenzy, the invested parties in his “revolution” have stated that many of them won’t compromise for anything less than his ideological purity.  It’s not hard to see why his voters threaten to take their metaphorical ball and go home, since this far into the primary process, Sanders and his supporters have resorted to demagoguery, by slamming Hillary Clinton as counter-revolutionary and part of the problem he crusades against.  But while Clinton is largely a centrist, she’s still incredibly liberal by many standards.  To shun Clinton as the nominee, I would relate to a person throwing out a hundred dollar winning lottery ticket in anger that they didn’t win the jackpot.  A win is still a win.

The second self-inflicted wound that Sanders may inflict against the Democrat Party is something I’ve heard Sanders’ supporters gleefully but myopically brag about.  When confronted by the delegate math and the difficulty Sanders faces at getting the nomination, I’ve personally heard his supporters allude (I paraphrase,) “It’s not important that he win so much as it’s important that he contribute to the conversation, “ or “At lease Sanders’ campaign is pushing Hillary to the left.”

This attitude is problematic for a couple of reasons.  For a quarter of Sanders’ voters it doesn’t matter if Clinton shifts left, they still won’t back her in the general election.  Sam Stein of makes the point that forcing Clinton to shift to the left will alienate moderate or transition GOP voters.[5]  And right now there are a lot of disaffected GOP voters who are worried about the hard-right swing of Trump’s angry populism who the Democrats will fail to woo if it appears there is an equal hard-left swing that Clinton is forced to make to compete with Sanders’ fringe ideology.

Sometimes conventional wisdom is conventional because it works.  Hard shifts to either extremes don’t help political parties in the long run and they don’t help American voters.  America enjoyed one of the longest economic expansions in its modern history under President Clinton and has recovered from the greatest loss of wealth in American history under President Obama.  Both presidents are largely centrists.  It doesn’t make sense to choose a high risk ideology which has dubious chances of success.


[1] Stein, S.  (2015), “The Rise Of Bernie Sanders And The Panic Of Democratic Centrists”

[2] Klein, E.  (2016), “Bernie Sanders’s single-payer plan isn’t a plan at all”

[3] Wallace-Wells, B.  (2016)  The New Yorker, “Sanders, Trump, and the Rise of the Non-Voters”

[4] Savransky, R.  (2016), “Poll: 1 in 4 Sanders Voters Won’t Back Clinton”

[5] Stein, S.  (2015), “The Rise Of Bernie Sanders And The Panic Of Democratic Centrists”


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