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“Americans have their minds wrapped around a two-party system. It is hard to get people to envision something different — despite the fact that there have been tectonic changes in the American political parties at many different junctures in our history. Building a new political party from scratch feels daunting and naïve.”
Sound familiar? This is how Charles Wheelan described US politics seven years ago in his book The Centrist Manifesto (2013).
Wheelan has an interesting pedigree that puts him in a unique position to reimagine politics in America. In addition to writing for The Economist and becoming a New York Times best-selling author, Wheelan ran for Congress in Illinois.
With November quickly approaching, this is a good time to listen to the Masters of Data episode, “Finding the Mythical Centrist” where Wheelan outlines the way an ideal democracy could run.
Some would say, “Everything,” but let’s look at the problems that most concern Wheelan.
As he points out in the episode, necessary harsh fiscal constraints are not in place today, and that puts the United States in a dangerous spot, 12 years after the Great Recession and in the midst of a pandemic that’s wreaking economic havoc around the world.
In 2010, the Simpson-Bowles commission made several recommendations that would get our economy out of the recession by improving the Congressional budget process and reducing the national debt. But Congress and the Executive Branch could never come to an agreement and implement the measures.
To get anything passed, you have to bring together two parties that are increasingly diametrically opposed. Legislation that benefits both conservatives and liberals will never get traction in our current arena of extremes.
When Simpson-Bowles failed to pass, Wheelan realized how intractable the two parties had become. “That was when I decided that Congress really was not going to be capable of dealing with hard issues, whether it was climate change, the fiscal situation, infrastructure, immigration, all the things that we've seen government struggling with ever since.”
Gerrymandering gives unfair advantages to the party who draws voting districts, rewarding the politicians but not the voters who live in these districts.
For example, Wheelan points to North Carolina. “Even though there's only a small percentage difference between Republicans and Democrats in the state, it is one of the most effectively gerrymandered states in the country… [Gerrymandering] creates safe districts, which means that the people who hold those seats, their only likely challenger is from a more extreme member of their own party.”
In The Centrist Manifesto, Wheelan outlines a way to address the two dysfunctional parties: By introducing a Centrist Party comprising the independents, undecideds, and moderates in the electorate, legislators would be more likely to meet in the middle.
“As a policy person, I realized that most of the problems that we care about really require solutions that draw from the tool kits of both parties,” Wheelan says. Centrists would be in favor of conservative issues like trade and liberal issues like social inequality.
As a third party, Centrist representatives and senators would take a majority away from both parties, forcing Republicans and Democrats to lean into the middle.
Wheelan calls for an independent redistricting commission that would end gerrymandering, by using data to ensure a political balance.
Because the Senate can’t be gerrymandered, Wheelan suggests that the Centrist Party should start there, where Centrist candidates would only have to take 34% of the vote in four or five U.S. Senate races.
Some Americans believe that third parties just skew the vote in one party’s favor (for example, the Green Party in 2000), and they won’t consider “wasting” their vote on a more moderate choice. The Electoral College is equally inhospitable to third parties.
There’s also speculation about how you’d determine where potential centrist voters are. Independents, moderates, and undecideds are not necessarily like-minded people who would shift to a third party. However, by analyzing voter data (as David Shor talks about in “The Data Driving Political Campaigns” episode), a Centrist campaign could find these mysterious voters.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the Centrist solution is money. Campaign war chests determine who wins, and that makes candidates in either party orient themselves away from the middle and more toward the extremes.
Data is the best way to know what constituents want. The more accurate and plentiful the data is, the faster Congress could make decisions that address common needs regardless of what party you vote for.
Meeting in the middle seems like an obvious strategy. “Neither party has a monopoly on the tools to govern the way we need to govern,” Wheelan notes. “Creating some political movement in the center should empower people to choose the ideas that work best from both sides using data, by the way, to get back to the theme of your podcast, to help inform those decisions.”
But as 538 points out, polls may not reveal true centrists. You could see 40% of voters refuse to identify with a party, or 40% of surveyed voters considering themselves moderates. 538’s conclusion is: “Moderate, independent, and undecided voters are not the same, and none of these groups are reliably centrist.”
However, determining the ideology behind these voters is a task for data. You need to sort out true centrists from the rest of the swing voters, and data would also allow a campaign to determine which states have the most hope of electing a Centrist candidate.
We may not see a centrist solution any time soon, but that’s if voters don’t force a change. As Wheelan points out, a party needs to pay attention to local elections, because that’s where a third party can compete on a more even playing ground. Unlike parties that the electorate sees as agenda-driven, a centrist movement by its nature would thrive in the one spot on the political scale where differing opinions may come together for common goals.
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