Why is American Politics Off Center?

Why is American Politics Off Center? We are very grateful to Kevin for offering this chance to discuss the current state of American politics. It?s gratifying that astute political analysts like Kevin, Chris Hayes, Henry Farrell, Mark Schmitt, Mathew Yglesias, and Paul Krugman (who has a column discussing our book in today?s Times) find our book of value. And we look forward to a lively discussion with all of you over the coming week.

At the risk of an excessively long post, we thought we?d start off by explaining why we wrote Off Center. To readers of this blog, the answer may seem obvious?the Republican Party is taking our country off track. But while we obviously have no affection for the Republican Party or its policy agenda, our reason for writing the book was not simply dissatisfaction with our current political leadership; it was also dissatisfaction with the conventional interpretation of contemporary politics.

In the conventional view, as Kevin said, the ?center? ultimately rules. Middle-of-the-road voters in the electorate and moderates in government run the show because they?re the ones whose votes politicians need to get elected and pass legislation. (In response to Al’s question, we mean by the center what political scientists call “the median voter”?that is, the voter exactly in the middle of the electorate.) The design of the American political system, with its aggressive effort to fragment and decentralize political authority, is supposed to make it hard to do even popular things?much less unpopular ones. And most political scientists as well as pundits have viewed the system as operating like a thermostat, pulling things back toward the center if they swing too far left or right.

So far, however, this hasn?t happened. Despite holding very narrow advantages that are supposed to force compromise, conservatives have pursued a very right-wing agenda and continued to rack up policy successes and electoral victories. Our goal in Off Center is to explain this puzzling outcome?how, that is, Republicans have governed to the right of moderate voters and achieved considerable (but, of course, not unlimited) success in advancing their agenda, without (so far, at least) provoking gridlock or backlash. And we want to show that carefully answering this question points to clearer and stronger answers to an even more pressing question: What can be done to restore greater accountability and responsiveness within the American political system?

That?s a pretty big agenda, especially since we wished to draw on both an extensive range of little-known but important social science research and make the book accessible and engaging for a broad audience. Besides Hayes?s thoughtful review, you can read Farrell?s good and very generous (if necessarily compressed) assessment at “Crooked Timber,” or consult our website, for more details. We hope we?ll get a chance to discuss all the major issues that we take up in the book this week. And, rest assured, we plan to explain the graphic from our book that Kevin posted and answer Kevin?s excellent opening question about the future of GOP dominance in our coming posts.

In this first entry, however, we want to focus on what we consider the biggest and most important puzzle. If the GOP has moved so far off center, why hasn?t it provoked a backlash, or, at a minimum, found its agenda completely stalemated?

It is crucial to remember, after all, that Republican electoral advantages have been very narrow. In many respects, Bush?s majority in 2001 was just the flip side of Clinton?s in 1992. Yet the GOP clearly had much more success in shifting the contours of American politics and policy.

In the face of a puzzle like this, the temptation is to search for a one-size-fits-all explanation. In response to Kevin?s post on Friday, a fair number of participants thought they had the single easy answer (?it?s framing!? or ?it?s the use of cultural issues as a wedge!? or ?it?s because Democrats are bumblers/cowards/sell-outs? or ?it?s race?). There were probably a couple of dozen factors raised by one person or another, which strongly suggests that there’s more than one thing at work. To us at least, it also suggests that what’s crucial is how these different plausible GOP advantages actually come together in reinforcing the party’s power.

Our own emphasis lies on the organizational and social foundations of political power, rather than on the character of personalities or particular rhetorical moves. In particular, we think a central source of GOP success lies in the unprecedented (within the contours of modern American politics) capacity of conservative elites to coordinate their activities and operate in a unified fashion.

In a political system that was specifically designed to prevent unified action, coordination is an enormous political advantage, helping the GOP to get the maximum value out of many of the advantages mentioned in Friday?s discussion. It makes it far easier to control the agenda (which is crucial in politics), to stay on message, to use legislative procedure (as well as even more obscure elements of policymaking) to pursue off-center goals while presenting a more moderate face to the public, to divide opponents, and to protect potentially vulnerable Republicans from exposure?as well as shower them with cash if all else fails. The capacity to work in an unusually unified way allows GOP elites to provide what we call backlash insurance?a variety of protections to politicians who might otherwise feel a need to be more responsive to public opinion. In a later post, we?ll say more about how we think this works.

To be clear, we are not saying that the GOP is always unified, or that it can get away with anything even when it is. Over the past decade, however, it has been far more unified than its opponents, or than any political party in modern American history. And it is that unity that has helped it to achieve a surprising degree of electoral and policy success despite moving off center?a course of action that is supposed to bring a party to ruin.