What is the Political Center?

In an article about Obama’s recent meeting with New York mayor Bloomberg, Thomas Ferguson writes the following about a well-funded third party effort:

Last year a group, Americans Elect, surfaced with a plan that strikingly resembled one of the schemes of 2008. . . . Once again, the media response was enthusiastic: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and others promoted the concept as just what America needed to break the two party deadlock that they saw hamstringing American politics.

Americans Elect’s very expensive efforts to get on the ballot in all 50 states, though, sported some very traditional features. Though it staked out a rhetorical claim to the political center, it declined to reveal who was financing it. The few moneybags it acknowledged were hardly from the political center. Peter Ackerman, for example, who acknowledges helping to finance the start up, was formerly Director of Capital Markets at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the firm Michael Milken made famous. . . .

One thing this illustrates to me is the limitations of characterizing interest groups by their political positions. In the current U.S. political climate, a multimillionaire who is on the left fringe of the Republican party, supporting tax cuts and assistance to Wall Street, is indeed in the political center. He might even support gay marriage and legal abortion! On the other hand, I agree with Ferguson that there’s something odd about thinking of someone like that as “centrist,” given that these guys have strong (and expensive) political goals. When they’re not playing the role of centrists, they are a very particular interest group. (And replacing a single left-right scale with a multidimensional issue space does not resolve this problem, that interests are not the same as ideology.)

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.