Jonah Goldberg: Politicians don’t look to the center anymore |
Featured Commentary

Jonah Goldberg: Politicians don’t look to the center anymore

If there’s a single idea that has defined the politics of the last 70 years it is the notion of “the center.”

What constituted the center of American politics has always been up for debate. Did the center mean mushy moderation? Was it the “reasonable” midpoint between the right and left where most American voters clustered? Was it a set of clear principles most Americans rallied around? Or was the center whatever positions could win over enough people who called themselves “centrists” or “independents”?

The truth is, it varied from one political moment to another. Politics is about building coalitions of support, and how that is done can change with the times and the personality.

When Barry Goldwater was seen as too extreme in 1964, Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. In 1968, the perceived inability of liberals to keep the left in check tilted the country to Richard Nixon.

Some politicians had the base in their pockets and needed to persuade the moderates, like Reagan in 1980. Some politicians had the moderates in their pocket but needed to persuade the base that their heart was in the right place, like George H.W. Bush in 1988.

But this idea that each party had to win over enough of the great American middle to be the majority party informed pretty much every presidential election since the end of World War II.

All of that seems to have vanished.

Donald Trump is the first president in living memory who seems utterly contemptuous of even appearing to care about voters outside of his base in a sustained way. He often refers to “my people” as if he is president of his fan base and no one else.

The bizarre irony is that Trump is less extreme on (some) policy issues than media coverage might lead you to believe. Trump doesn’t want to touch entitlements, and neither do most voters. When pressed, most Americans don’t like it when NFL players kneel for the national anthem. On countless other issues, from trade and foreign policy to immigration, Trump’s underlying positions are much less controversial than the way he talks about them and the way he handles them. Most Americans don’t want immigration increased, and most Americans don’t like the way Trump talks about immigrants. Most Americans don’t want to see Confederate statues toppled, and I suspect that most Americans don’t like the way he talks about that issue either.

As we’ve seen in recent primaries, GOP candidates are taking their cues from Trump. The main issue in race after race was which candidate was more sup
portive of Trump rather than any public-policy issue. It’s no wonder that only
33 percent of Americans think Republican congressional candidates are within the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Democrats, in part as a reaction to Trump’s base-appeasing style, have become policy extremists. The competition among Democrats is to see who can be the most reasonable-sounding defender of unreasonable policies, from midwifing a new socialist era to abolishing ICE. So it’s also no surprise that only
33 percent of Americans think Democratic congressional candidates are within the mainstream.

I don’t think Trump created this dynamic, but he’s accelerating it.

Much of this political transformation is downstream of a demographic transformation. Because of what has been called “the big sort,” Blue America is becoming bluer, and Red America is becoming redder. Thus, the political incentive for most politicians isn’t to cultivate the center to cobble together a majority coalition, but to gin up the base as much as possible .

For both parties, the notion of appealing to the center, or simply expanding their coalitions, has faded from collective memory. The challenge for the GOP in the long run is that this strategy depends on an ever-shrinking supply of white voters.

Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for
the Tribune Content Agency. Email
him at [email protected]

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.