You’d think, if you only looked at who was actually winning certain crucial elections, that now is a great time to be a moderate.
The presidential race is between a pragmatic Democrat with centrist instincts, and a moderate Republican with pragmatic instincts. Mitt Romney defeated a host of other candidates who were far more to the right. Polls say moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown is either even with or ahead of liberal Elizabeth Warren in true-blue Massachusetts. Here in Connecticut’s 5th District, despite a lot of bluster about who was really a Republican and who was really a Democrat, two moderates won their respective primaries. It must be a fine thing, to be in the middle in 2012.
And yet, somehow, we still live in some of the most polarized times in memory. The federal government is paralyzed by partisan Republican brinksmanship, the GOP convention is preparing a draconian platform, and the moderate Romney was so afraid of his carnivorous base that he selected Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin acolyte of Ayn Rand, as his running mate. In Connecticut, moderate Republican Christopher Shays lost the Senate nomination in a tidal wave to Linda McMahon in a vote that was partly a reaction to Shays constantly frustrating more conservative Republicans throughout his long career.
The Democrats aren’t quite as bad, though they still love to tie themselves in knots over who is really a progressive and who isn’t. That moderate Elizabeth Esty, fresh off her primary win, has to fret about the support of progressive activists and organized labor as well as a potential spoiler run by outgoing House Speaker Chris Donovan, a progressive favorite who lost the nomination to Esty following a bribery scandal among his staff. It’s still unclear if Donovan will run on the Working Families Party line, since at the time of this writing he is still apparently on vacation.
The upshot is that it pays to run where the most activist and extreme voters are, and our two big political parties are changing because of it. As Republicans and Democrats internalize the idea that winning an election in today’s climate is more about exciting your own base than reaching into the center, moderates are faced with the same rock-and-a-hard-place choice, over and over. Do you choose the party that spends too much, has terrible relations with business, looks down its nose at religion and can’t seem to legislate its way out of a paper bag, or the party that has hideous rhetoric on women’s rights and race relations, wants to cut needed entitlement programs, favors huge tax breaks for those who need them least, and would rather bomb the world than save it?
That’s why this election feels like such a heartless slog. Most likely voters have made up their minds, but not because they wholeheartedly support their candidate or party. They just want to keep the other party out of power. American politics is now more about blocking the opposition than accomplishing anything constructive, and we’re sick of it. That’s why I have no patience for conservative hand-wringing over Andrew Roraback, or liberal moaning over Elizabeth Esty. It makes little sense when national political groups are trying to paint both Roraback and Esty as dangerous extremists.
There was a great poll done by Suffolk University of unlikely voters, people who didn’t vote and weren’t planning on it, and their attitudes shine a light on a segment of society who politicians, conscious of the need to appeal to their core voters, increasingly don’t represent at all. Many are white and poor, few have college degrees. Less than a third of them said the two major parties did a good job representing all Americans’ political views. Some 53 percent thought third parties, or even fourth or fifth parties, were necessary. Many identified themselves as moderates.
There’s little to inspire these voters to get to the polls, because many don’t feel it makes much of a difference. The old big-tent parties have become far less welcoming, and far less roomy. Politics and government in Connecticut and the country at large should be about real solutions for the people, instead of an endless, insipid contest to prove that one side is good, and the other is bad. However, to do that would require rupturing our political life and culture. Getting rid of the Electoral College, which would allow third parties to really compete, might be one way we could start that happening. The National Popular Vote initiative will pop up again in the 2013 legislative session, and we should support it.
There are good moderate candidates out there, such as Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Andrew Roraback and Elizabeth Esty. But until the political conversation starts being less about scaring voters with the dangers of the other side, and more about compromise and real solutions, then moderate and pragmatist voters will continue to feel lost in a sea of partisanship.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.