OFF CENTER….What’s the better campaign strategy: appealing to the center in order to win moderate votes or appealing to extremism in order to mobilize your base? In Off Center, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson offer an intriguing take on this ancient question, and I’ve invited them to guest blog here this week and chat about it with us.

Here’s the nickel version of their thesis: as Hacker and Pierson acknowledge, the conventional wisdom of the political science profession has long suggested that you ignore the center at your peril. That’s where the swing votes are, and if you move too far away from the center you’ll be swiftly and surely punished at the polls.

So how is it that American politics moved so far rightward? Contrary to conventional wisdom, H&P present an impressive mass of evidence indicating that, in general, the American public itself hasn’t moved rightward over the past three decades. At the same time, it’s unquestionable that American politics has become much more polarized over that period:

But the problem is not just polarization. It is unequal polarization ? unequal between Democrats and Republicans, unequal in its effect on the governing aims of liberals and conservatives, and unequal in its effects on American society.

….What makes the shift of American politics off center so puzzling is that Republicans have achieved a number of big policy changes in spite of increasing polarization ? and in spite of evident public concern about many of them.

But how has the Republican party managed to move so far away from the center of American politics without being turfed out of office? Readers of this blog will recognize a lot of the answers, but one of the virtues of Off Center is that it brings them all together in a single place for the first time:

  • Increasingly safe congressional districts that protect extremist candidates from the wrath of moderate voters.

  • Institutional changes such as co-opting the lobbyists of K Street as virtual arms of the Republican party.

  • “Time bombs” in legislation, in which popular measures are enacted immediately while hidden ? and much larger ? benefits for Republican supporters are delayed a year or two, when public attention has shifted elsewhere.

  • Deliberate and increasingly sophisticated efforts to mislead the public about the real aims of the party.

  • A coordinated effort by the leadership of the party ? both official and unofficial ? to punish moderates and stack the backbenches with loyal hardliners.

What makes Off Center such a worthwhile book is the way it explains how all these moving parts work together and how this has fundamentally changed American politics. For a more detailed summary of Off Center, check out Chris Hayes’ review in the current issue of the Washington Monthly and Henry Farrell’s review over at Crooked Timber.

As I mentioned, Hacker and Pierson will be guest blogging here for the rest of this week, so I’m going to start things off with a question for them: If I’m reading Off Center correctly, American politics has been off balance for about a decade, and seriously off balance since 2000. How long do you think this can last before the center finally pulls back? Or has American politics changed so fundamentally that it will stay off center forever unless Democrats adopt tactics similar to Republicans’?

In other words, what’s your best guess: do Democrats need to fight fire with fire? Or will the center eventually hold if Democrats figure out a more effective way of appealing to moderate voters?

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