mead berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    There’s a simpler explanation: the left- and right-of-center parties are not interested in the needs of their constituents. This is particularly true in the House, where gerrymander guarantees election election and reelection of one party hack or another. What’s needed is to slay the gerrymander by redrawing districts based on, say, zip codes rather than voting patterns.

    • Boritz

      Would eventually lead to truly insane zip codes which the post office would hate but so what.

      • Andrew Allison

        Yeah, I suppose expecting officials elected from sane districts to leave them that way is too much to hope for — we need to take control of redistricting away from elected officials. How about the Census Bureau being charged with mechanical redistricting every 10 years?

        • Kevin

          Given the shenanigans at the Census Bureau I would have zero confidence in this.

  • Frank Natoli

    Absent from the above analysis is that the root cause of 1861-1865 was resolved in the negative by the North’s morally correct but Constitutionally wrong victory over the South.
    As the late yet peerless Shelby Foote noted, prior to 1861-1865, all referred to our country as “these” United States, whereas after 1861-1865, all referred to our country as “the” United States.
    None of the above articles suggestions resolve the fundamental problem, which is, roughly half the country wants an all encompassing government that decides everything, from how many gallons their toilet should flush to what kind of light bulb should be offered for sale to what kind of health insurance policies every health insurance company can offer, and roughly half the country wants Washington out of their lives.
    The time has come to face the facts and forever sunder those two halves.

  • Anthony

    Bringing interests together poses challenges – many intimated in Post. Moreover, coalitions (and that’s inferred in term transpartisanship) have varied interests and policy perspectives. Coalition management, given current U.S. political arrangements, make behavior touted above both complex and challenging. Indeed, transpartisanship may just obscure the complicated nature of that which it ascribes – though Post highlights an important governance mechanism (idea) by which politicos ought to consider given where we are.

  • FriendlyGoat

    When the church-member folks who form much of the “base” of the modern political right finally figure out that high-end tax cuts do not, did not, cannot and will not create living-wage jobs in the USA (or anywhere), the present state of polarization will be significantly diminished.

    This is why I always say that this one topic is the most important subject in our politics—-whether most of us seem to “know it” or not. As long as those who already have the natural tendency to “cling” to religion believe that they are somehow doing God’s work by giving most of the economic pie to “the elite” out of utter and complete misunderstanding, we have a mess and will continue to have a mess. Grover Norquist is not the guy to be following. Neither are Dobson, Graham, Falwell, Reed, Carson, Huckabee and all the other so-called faith leaders as long as they are preaching Norquist.

    • seattleoutcast

      The snide and irrelevant comment towards religious people aside, this comment of course, ignores why there is a cry for a living wage in the first place. You naturally incline towards micromanaging businesses and making bizarre comments about fundamentalists, but blissfully ignore the causes of price increases,

      The vast increase in prices over the years are in three areas: health, education and real estate. Much of this is due to easy access to money. And, as anybody who has ever taken an Econ 101 class will say, expansion of the money supply will often lead to price increases.

      Health care has many causes for its increase that have nothing to do with tax cuts. Many states restrict competition to just a few companies. This way they can better manage health care through regulation. This collusion with corporations raises the cost of health care. It’s not a surprise that furthering this collusion on a national level has exacerbated the problem.

      Add to that the massive influx of money since the 1960s through government programs which have exponentially increased the costs of health care.

      Big education is another result of money infusion. The desire to lower the cost of higher education through government assistance has caused prices to balloon since the sixties. I remember hearing from college students, “Every time I get more financial aid, tuition goes up.” This anecdotal evidence is backed by statistics.

      Higher real estate prices, thanks to cheap loans has inflated the housing market once again. This is obvious to anyone who can fog a mirror.

      All of this has been covered on TAI a number of times. I wonder if you actually read the posts. It appears to me that you see a headline and then comment with a typical 60s radical, moronic social justice, hyper secularist comment.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I wasn’t talking about prices. I was talking about jobs of the kind with sufficient remuneration and security to support families, including those of church people, in a manner which perpetuates the whole social concept of families and “family values”.

        Further, I am not being “snide” about religious people. I am actually trying to advocate policies which would help them AND help their churches. If you are an American Christian, you cannot sensibly wish to concentrate the money of the economy in CEOs, financial traders, trial lawyers and entertainers WHILE watching many to most of the small churches fall apart because nobody can afford to keep the doors open in them.

        There are a lot of Trump supporters who are VERY angry that their economic prospects are McJobs with little else in sight and they haven’t a clue how they got in such a mess. That’s the point. They now want to look at Donald’s lifestyle and think theirs will head toward his if they just give his class some more tax cuts. It’s insane.

        • seattleoutcast

          I pointed out that price increases have causes that you do not understand. If these prices had not increased, then you wouldn’t be whining about job remuneration and security. Over-regulation and inflationary Fed policy has given incredible power to corporations and CEOs, financial traders, trial lawyers and entertainers. Your side is more responsible for this than the republicans, especially after the past 8 years. Can you see a correlation of income inequality and the Obama Administration? I can. In fact, anybody who looks a a simple chart can see it.

          Yes you are being snide. This is a typical leftie dodge in which you try to say you are helping people but in reality you are forcing them to change their philosophical views. I see it all the time. “Oh,” a leftie will say in often a smug and condescending attitude, “I’m just trying to help you.” This is of course being done because those who disagree with a leftist are considered stupid, uneducated and/or mentally ill. They put dissenters in hospitals in the old USSR because they must have been mentally ill to disagree with the State.

          Churches will have no problem staying open because they do not need buildings to function.

          • FriendlyGoat

            People either understand economic reality —–or they don’t. They either understand that removing taxation from what is left over as profit after paying wages puts downward pressure on hiring and wages—–or they don’t. You don’t.
            Republicans routinely state or infer that companies cannot afford to pay decent wages because their profit is over-taxed. It is not a true statement and has never been. Christians at some time are supposed to use their famous discernment to understand things beyond “showmen” like Trump, Palin, Charlton Heston, Duck Dynasty, John Wayne, Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood and others of the popular-on-your-side movie/TV gang. I happen to think most conservatives are willfully short on discernment—-and especially you, but I wouldn’t be saying that about you except for the fact you follow me around like a lost puppy.

    • Jim__L

      Actually, it’s people who claim to be Christians but don’t actually go to church that are Trump’s biggest supporters. There’s something about cutting yourself off from a firm foundation that leads to insanity.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Mercy, that didn’t work for me. Focusing on Jesus and skipping the church circus does not make me a Trump-conservative. Quite the opposite.

  • circleglider

    Noah Millman’s piece in The Week is required reading for anyone trying to understand Donald Trump:

    Trump is ranting about Curiel’s bias not because doing so is part of any kind of rational political strategy, but because he is going to lose the case. And if he loses, it must be somebody else’s fault. He’s not just talking about himself instead of something that actually matters to voters. He’s talking to himself, telling himself a story of how big a winner he is, no matter how often he loses. And he’s doing it in front of the entire country.In a very basic sense, this is the emotional connection that Trump forged from the beginning of his campaign. Trump sees himself as a winner whose occasional setbacks are the result of other people’s unfairness or incompetence. He has connected with a slice of the voting public that sees America’s problems in similar terms: the fault of corrupt, incompetent, and disloyal elites. But successful political leaders — whether they operate within established norms or, like Trump, gleefully flout them — use that emotional connection for something larger. It’s the ground on which they build loyalty to a political program and organization.Trump isn’t building anything. Indeed, he hasn’t built anything in a good long time; for decades, he’s been a marketer whose only product is his own mystique. And so it is with his political campaign. The purpose of the emotional connection he has forged is entirely personal: to reaffirm his own greatness, his own winningness. “I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is,” he told supporters on the Monday conference call. The conversation keeps coming back to him because that’s where he wants it to go. Because that’s all his campaign has ever been about.

    • FriendlyGoat

      We already know that Trump supporters are not interested in “understanding” their idol. The question—–the only question—–is whether a majority of women will buy, or not buy, “I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is.”

      • Jim__L

        There’s also the question whether women think that “The Rules Don’t Apply To Me” Hillary needs to go to jail.

        • FriendlyGoat

          The ones who already want conservatism as far as the eye can see will be interested in prosecuting Hillary. No one else will. Women who like Sarah Palin and Joni Ernst will be with you. Women who look to other issues won’t be..

          • Jim__L

            FG, anyone who knows anything about the effects that massive security leaks (like the ones Hillary has caused) can have YEARS after they have been committed, wants Hillary’s scalp.


            The next major, 9-11 scale disaster that happens in US national security, (as well as countless “minor” lethal incidents) will probably be traceable to Hillary’s shenanigans.

            If this doesn’t register with you, or with your mental picture of what women must want, then you have a (perhaps unsurprising) terrible view of womens’ judgement.

          • FriendlyGoat

            There are lots of issues. Individual women will decide whether they wish to give up a whole bunch of them ultra-conservatism in order to “get Hillary’s scalp”. Some women in the center or to the left thereof MAY notice that their opponents on the right only want us to all dwell on Hillary’s alleged misdeeds or shortcomings. For them, that MIGHT become what could be called a “clue” in the game of “get a clue”. We’ll find out in five months.

          • Jim__L

            For heaven’s sake, FG, it’s a FELONY we’re talking about!

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’m thinking and hoping that the women of America will prevent our country from embracing the McConnell/Ryan/Alito/Gingrich style of governance on every issue you can think of. That ISSUE-ORIENTED choice happens to be represented in the persons of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton this time. Hillary’s negatives are nicely balanced against Donald’s negatives—–but neither are the point. The election “consequences” are the point.

          • Jim__L

            Show me where Donald Trump exposed state secrets in a particularly idiotic way.

            Go on, show me.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Not biting. You and I can argue this all day. The consequences are the point. The women are going to decide.

          • Jim__L

            You’re simply saying you don’t care if your presidential candidate is a felon whose actions jeopardized national security, when comparable actions led to the worst terrorist attacks ever on American soil.

            How the hell did your party end up nominating such a person?

          • FriendlyGoat

            Our party rather presumed that Hillary would run with heavy support and only Bernie Sanders chose to buck that, so we didn’t have a large number of other candidates willing to go through the effort and most likely not win. So, why did your side start with 17 and end with “such a person” as Donald Trump? That’s really a deeper question, you know.

    • Arkeygeezer

      It seems to me that this election will boil down to capitalism v. socialism. On the one side we have a Capitalist with all of his warts on, against a Socialist siren singing her songs of inequality.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service