Last week New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait reminded us that swing voters are going extinct. (“From the 1950s through the 1980s, 10 to 15 percent of voters floated between the two parties in presidential elections. Recently that rate has fallen to about 5 percent.”) Whether a cause or effect of more partisan voting, it’s also true that moderate candidates, and those who challenge their party’s orthodoxy, are becoming scarcer. The phrase “moderate Republican” has become more and more of an oxymoron with each passing year since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. In 2014, the Democrats, trying to stave off electoral disaster, ran supposedly centrist U.S. Senate candidates in red states like Georgia and Kentucky (where Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to say whether she had voted for Barack Obama), but all of them lost, and the party will probably end up with a more orthodox slate in 2016.
The narrowing of the political parties has been accompanied by a change in the definition of moderate or centrist political views. So-called social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, hardly matter any more. These days it seems that a “moderate” —Democratic, Republican, or independent—is someone who advocates government austerity, and in particular cutting Social Security benefits. Pro-life Democrats and pro-union Republicans, who once represented swing voters, are almost nowhere to be found.
We see this most clearly among the Republican presidential candidates, who debate for the fourth time on Tuesday night. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, who are either blessed or cursed with a reputation for being moderate and responsible, want to raise the Social Security retirement age and cut benefits to higher-income households. John Kasich has been tagged as the truth-teller in the Republican Party, thanks to his skepticism of the power of massive tax cuts for the wealthy. (In the last GOP debate, he asked sarcastically, “Why don’t we just give a chicken in every pot, while we’re, you know, coming up—coming up with these fantasy tax schemes?”) But he is still running as a severe austerity candidate, repeatedly emphasizing in the last debate that “I spent my entire lifetime” balancing budgets, as a congressional leader and as governor of Ohio. He is also a longtime champion of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. This straitjacket on government spending is considered a radically conservative idea among economists; only in the red-versus-blue political arena is it considered a sign of centrism.
Forty years ago, we were beginning the first presidential campaign in which most convention delegates were chosen through competitive primaries, and 1976 featured more policy differences within the parties than has been seen ever since. Democratic candidates included the right-wing populist George Wallace and the emphatic but technocratic Jimmy Carter (who would have fit right into the GOP of that era if he had been born in Maine instead of Georgia), but Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the epitome of the moderate-to-conservative wing of the party. Jackson opposed abortion in almost all instances, was against school busing to achieve racial integration, and was one of the most hawkish members of Congress, saying in 1975 that “The basic decision to go into Vietnam was right.” But Sen. Jackson was also a defender of social-welfare programs and a champion of organized labor. “Labor had no stauncher friend,” said Lane Kirkland, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. upon Sen. Jackson’s death. It’s difficult to imagine anyone earning such praise from a major union leader today without being classified as left-wing, and unelectably so, on the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.
On the Republican side in 1976, the moderate wing was represented by president and former House minority leader Gerald Ford, who had an adversarial but not always hostile relationship with labor unions. At time, the party also included senators like Jacob Javits of New York and Ed Brooke of Massachusetts who usually voted with labor unions. They would be called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) today and would surely not survive party primaries. The best-known RINO of the time, vice-president and former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, also worked with unions and signed the first state minimum-wage law in the country. The fact that he was also a leader in the “tough on crime” movement wouldn’t save him from being purged from the party for union sympathies today; indeed, he would be a better fit for the Bill Clinton administration.
President Clinton, of course, is credited with moving the Democratic Party to the center in the 1990s. But any move to the center on social issues was temporary. The more lasting effects of his administration were welfare reform, banking deregulation, and a more conciliatory tone toward Wall Street. Labor support, once something that almost every Democratic candidate outside the South boasted about, is now almost considered an embarrassment.
When Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980, he established the party’s current strategy of wooing upper-income voters with tax cuts and working-class voters with “wedge” social issues such as abortion and gun control (as well as jingoist rhetoric in foreign policy). The Democratic Party eventually followed by going after highly educated voters (especially secular ones) on the other side of the same wedge issues, while attracting non-white voters on civil-rights issues rather than economic ones. The question of how to increase wages and reduce unemployment, once at the center of American politics, has been shoved aside. Even the most-publicized attempts to create a third force in American politics—including Ross Perot’s independent presidential campaign in 1992, the Third Way think tank, and the No Labels movement—have emphasized Social Security reforms and other austerity proposals, appealing more to the investor class than to the middle-income voters who once defined the center.
This campaign season has shown signs that the working class is tired of being neglected. In the Democratic race Bernie Sanders offers a coherent, if not entirely realistic, agenda for working-class voters. On the Republican side, Donald Trump is getting disproportionate support from those in less secure economic circumstances (especially white men without college degrees). Mr. Trump’s vows not to cut Social Security and Medicare, along with his scapegoating of immigrants and his vague assertions that certain rich people like hedge-fund managers should pay more in taxes, don’t add up to a practical blueprint for addressing the concerns of the working class, but it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s polling better than the candidates who say Too Much Social Security is the country’s biggest problem.