Is the Middle Really Just a Myth?

A column in the Washington Post reviews some polling data and concludes that the desire for middle of the road solutions is a myth. They make some valid points, but the issue is far more complex. They review the findings of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) which surveyed more than 24,000 Americans who voted in 2006:

Not surprisingly, some of the largest differences between Democrats and Republicans were over the Iraq war. Fully 85 percent of those who voted for Democratic House candidates felt that it had been a mistake to invade Iraq, compared with only 18 percent of voters who cast ballots for Republicans.

But the divisions between the parties weren’t limited to Iraq. They extended to every issue in the survey. For example, 69 percent of Democratic voters chose the most strongly pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, compared with 20 percent of Republican voters; only 16 percent of Democratic voters supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while 80 percent of Republican voters did; and 91 percent of Democratic voters favored governmental action to reduce global warming, compared with 27 percent of Republican voters.

This is consistent with previous posts where I’ve looked at the differences between left and right and found that social issues on Iraq have replaced economic issues as the major divisions between the parties. This also places into doubt the value of efforts such as Unity08 to promote a more centrist ticket. Voters are unhappy with the current political atmosphere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the solution is always somewhere in the middle of the views of the parties.

Polling has also showed that when asked about a generic moderate versus liberal or conservative, the gut reaction of many voters is to pick the moderate. George Bush ran in 2000 claiming to be a compassionate conservative, knowing that while he needed the conservative base he could not win a first term if the middle realized how conservative he was. If not for exploiting 9/11, he most likely would have been a one-term President, with many who voted for him in 2004 now regreting their decision. Republicans ran against Kerry by misrepresenting Congressional voting records to claim Kerry had the most liberal voting record in the Senate. This was done both to fire up the base against him, as well as as an attempt to attract moderate voters who would object to the “most liberal” member while failing to realize how far right the GOP has moved.

It makes sense that there is polarity over the issues they quote in the column. You can either agree or disagree that invading Iraq was a mistake, with the number believing it was a mistake growing to include both liberals and those mythical moderates. Despite attempts to blur the distinction by some politicians, ultimately you either believe that a woman has the right to control her own body or that abortion is murder and there is no real center ground on this.

This doesn’t mean that the polarization between far left and right are the only choices. Issues such as economics and health care lend themselves to a greater variety of positions on the issue. This is where we see more frustration over the polarization as the differences between the two parties often prevent the development of solutions to problems.

The idea that voters want “the parties and their childish politicians to stop fighting and to work together” isn’t necessarily contradicted by the findings they quote. While there have always been disagreements between the parties, the degree of hostility starting with the Republican take over of Congress in the 1990’s has created a desire for change. Voters recognize the parties might disagree over abortion, but still want politicians to work together to solve other issues.

In recent years Republican use of wedge issues to bring out the base has exacerbated the problem. Gerrymandering also leads to representatives who can win safe districts by appealing to one side while ignoring the views of others. While true that there is a great division on some social issues, this does not mean that a system which rewards appealing to the base is the best way to go.

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