The End of the Center

Policy elites have generally put forward two main fixes for political polarization. The first is to change the American political system so as to reduce the counter-majoritarian obstacles to enacting legislation (i.e., eliminating the Senate filibuster, curbing the power of the courts, or tightening campaign finance restrictions). The second is to promote what is commonly thought of as a “bipartisan” agenda—that is, measures favored by elites on the center-left and center-right.

But what if policymakers could make progress in certain areas without weakening our system of checks and balances, and without resorting to moderate “centrist” compromises that all-too-often don’t have much support from the general public in the first place? That’s the premise of a recent New America paper on a phenomenon called “transpartisanship”—that is, political coalitions that begin with an alliance of liberals and conservatives on the more ideological sides of their parties, rather than triangulating centrists in the middle. The paper begins by showing that, thanks to partisan and ideological sorting, the old-fashioned centrist-driven legislative process is breaking down:

We conclude that shifts in the political landscape— the culmination of three decades of political and demographic change—have made centrist bipartisan coalitions newly vulnerable to disruption. In decades past, policy entrepreneurs used a single playbook across many issue areas: invest in a community of experts and a base of research, develop support among establishment players and institutions, and use that credibility to build a coalition of centrists in Congress.

This kind of policy gridlock has opened the door to new kinds of political alliances:

In recent years, strange-bedfellow coalitions built from the outer edges of one or both parties have been responsible for reforms to sentencing in the criminal justice system, changes to how the United States conducts electronic surveillance, and several years’ cuts to the Pentagon budget. In individual states and municipalities, such coalitions have overseen broad criminal justice reforms, opened electric monopolies to competition from solar producers, and overturned the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education.

The authors argue that while transpartisanship has yet to see any spectacular legislative victories at the federal level (criminal justice reform, the movement’s greatest success, is still working its way through the Senate) it is likely to become a more effective strategy in the future as traditional political coalitions are shaken up on the left and right alike. Another reason the environment is more favorable to transpartisanship is that people are increasingly doubting the wisdom of what Walter Russell Mead has called “the American Establishment, the Great and the Good of both parties,” which “has worked its way into a dead end of ideas that don’t work and values that can’t save us.” An infusion of intellectual energy from the Left and Right can sometimes be more productive than continued adherence to the same old centrist pablum.

We don’t agree with all the transpartisan initiatives described in the report (the reduction in defense spending, made possible by an alliance between GOP libertarians and Democratic doves) was, in our view, particularly misguided, for example. But we’re hoping that we continue to see continued disruption of the official ideologies of both parties, and new and unorthodox alliances between them. Some promising areas for collaboration between anti-establishmentarians on the Right and Left: land-use laws that favor property owners but punish the upwardly mobile working class, occupational licensing rules designed to protect well-paid professionals against market competition, and a higher education cartel that drives up tuition while delivering steadily increasing salaries to top administrators.

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