Opinion: Has the Center dissolved?

You don’t need a degree in political science to understand that our nation is more politically divided now than it has been in the personal history of anyone who is alive today. However, the division between left and right has been developing for decades; it’s not a product of the past or present White House or which party dominates Congress.

Ten years ago in this column, I asked the question: Is the center dissolving (“The Rapidly Dissolving Center,” Feb. 12, 2012). I implied that the division between liberals and conservatives was linked to the political economy, citing work by Robert Reich, then Harvard professor of economics and now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. At least three decades ago, Reich described our nation’s drift toward a “two-tiered society,” one well educated and wealthy, the other undereducated and in debt.

The polarization paradox

If we had a magic telescope through which we could look back 70 years, we’d see a much different political landscape from that which exists today. And we’d also see a much different economic structure: there would be rich and poor, but the focus of attention would be on a burgeoning middle class, not on the number of people with extravagant wealth.

Dwight Eisenhower, who had been Supreme Commander of all allied troops in Europe, won the presidency and assumed office in 1953. A Republican, he received support from Democrats for his program to build an interstate highway system that became the envy of the world. My maternal grandfather, who was the only member of my family on either side ever to cast a ballot, boasted after each election that he voted “a straight Democratic ticket.” However, in the 1950s, he voted for Eisenhower.

Certainly, there were differences between Republicans and Democrats, but they were philosophical. Republicans favored smaller government programs and lower taxes; Democrats liked the massive projects created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and they were willing to pay the higher taxes to support them. Debates focused on the issues and did not devolve to personal insults and name-calling.

As Eric Loepp, associate professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, points out in an op-ed article for Divided We Fall, “Indeed, in the 1950s the American Political Science Association was worried about excessive consensus in American politics.” The organization was worried about a confluence of political opinion. A position paper stated, “Alternatives between the parties are defined so badly that it is often difficult to determine what the election has decided even in the broadest terms.’

This observation caused consternation among the scholars because they worried about low voter turnouts at the polls. According to Loepp, “…voters have a hard time engaging in politics if they cannot easily differentiate one party from another.”

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that during and for some time after World War II, the typical politician, whether Democrat or Republican, was a centrist, possibly reflecting the nation’s quest for peaceful unity after a war that stretched around the entire world.

The statistics of polarization

As World War II became a memory and national concern about U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew, the “Silent Fifties” gave way to a turbulent decade that saw the development of the Hippie Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Anti-war Movement, among others. By 1970, statisticians at the Pew Institute had developed a method for rating politicians by their voting behavior. By averaging individual scores, the mathematicians determine the “median” Democrat and the “median” Republican.

This single score is then plotted on a numeric scale from minus 0.6 (More Liberal) to plus 0.6 (More Conservative). The points on the graph for each Congress from 1972 to 2022 show a slow but constant movement from the midpoint of the scale toward the extremes. For U.S. Senators, in 1972, the “median Democrat” was scored at -0.29 and the “median Republican was at +0.27. But in 2022, the median Democrat had moved -0.06 points to the left, while the median Republican scored +0.28 to the right. For Members of the House of Representatives, the median Democrat scored at -0.3 and the median Republican ranked +0.28 in 1972. By 2022, the median Democrat had moved -0.07 to the left, and the median Republican shifted +0.25 to the right.

The Pew data show that instead of moving toward a “golden mean,” or a more centrist position, politicians on average tend to sway with the breeze. However, the breeze blows in opposite directions for the two parties. Writing in this column ten years ago, I stated, “My fear is that, once the boundaries have been established, they will solidify.” But the Pew data indicate that the parties are further apart now than they were then.

Unfortunately, the Pew study only goes back fifty years in ten-year increments. If the mathematicians had data for two more decades, I’d venture to say that the differential between the median Democrat and the median Republican would have been less obvious in 1962 and 1952, although Democrats would still score on the liberal side of the mean (0.0) and the Republicans would be on the conservative side.

Two years before I wrote that 2012 column, I’d written another one about political polarization. At that time, 2010, I cited Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He said, “Soon we’re going to be able to go to museums to see the skeletons of the centrists and learn about what they were.”

This year, as we watched several moderate politicians drop out of contention for office, West’s words seem prophetic. And that leads me to a slightly different question from the one asked in 2012. Has the center already dissolved?

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.