Tork Mason / USA Today Network

From the Center

I never liked being called a “moderate”. The term suggests that I don’t have strong feelings about anything – higher taxes or lower taxes, border wall or citizenship, pro-choice or pro-life – that the policy and real-world outcomes really didn’t matter as long as there was a compromise that led to agreement. But I’m not moderate about very many things at all. Rather, I am fiercely conservative on some issues and just as ardently liberal on others. Reducing me to milquetoast moderation because I refuse to be pigeonholed within a convenient ideological classification is a political copout.

“Centrist” is only slightly better, as it represents an average of my various left and right leaning beliefs. One of the reasons I was drawn to AllSides is their use of the term “center bias” for me and my principles. It more accurately frames my thinking as tending toward less ideologically extreme alternatives without imprisoning me in the middle ground on everything.

This bout with self-reflection has been prompted by the inevitable decision by the No Labels movement last week not to nominate a candidate for president in 2024. The organization’s leaders finally admitted defeat last week and conceded that no viable politico in either party would risk their name and reputation on such a quixotic endeavor. Like many well-meaning reformers, the people in charge of their efforts look at poll numbers describing the large number of Americans who say they will vote for a third option and mistakenly assume that large numbers of Americans will therefore vote for a third option. This error is usually compounded by another equally explicable misunderstanding, that the vast and growing number of self-described independents in the electorate would prefer a more moderate alternative for whom to cast their ballots.

Let’s take the latter of the two misperceptions first. In an era of dramatically increased polarization and hyper-partisanship, it’s very tempting to assume that those who refuse to align with either of the two major parties must therefore occupy the ideological space that exists between them. But academic research shows that independent voters are indistinguishable from registered Republicans on a left-right spectrum. While some split the difference, most independents are just as conservative as most Republicans and others are just as liberal as typical Democrats. What distinguishes them from their partisan contemporaries is not a yearning for the political center but rather a disdain for politics as usual and a pronounced animosity toward the established structure that they believe has failed to address the country’s many needs.

Using this measurement, it appears that Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin would be less likely to be seen as this cohort’s political saviors than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The solution they seek is not centrism but rather a full-on attack on the existing political order. (Not surprisingly, Sanders is a registered independent, and Trump was for many years before both decided their paths to success were more likely to occur within one of the two major parties.) Think about other third party and independent candidates who significantly impacted the elections in which they ran – Ross Perot, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Ralph Nader and now potentially Robert Kennedy, Jr. All were advocates of what we will call “middle finger politics” in which they figuratively raised their middle digits to inspire disaffected voters against more traditional politicians.

Which brings us back to No Labels’ first mistake. Voters like to complain, especially when they are asked if they are content with the existing candidates and parties. Few of us are satisfied with every aspect of our lives, in politics or in anything else. But most of us are creatures of habit and tend to revert to the familiar. It’s one thing to gripe about the existing options, but it’s a much different thing to abandon them altogether.

Experienced politicians understand these dynamics. It’s why Michael Bloomberg ultimately passed on a third-party candidacy in 2020 and why Manchin, Romney, and so many others declined the No Labels invitation this year. The open question is whether the veteran politicos who run No Labels understood this too, and why they went ahead anyway until it became so obvious that they could not succeed.

This country will see a third and possibly a fourth party at some point in the future, most likely when Generation Z comes of age and forces us oldsters in that direction. But until then, hopefully No Labels and their fellow travelers will spare us these continued and unnecessary political melodramas.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Tork Mason / USA Today Network