A week or two ago, one of my best friends growing up, a teacher and football coach at our old high school text me and asked me “why are the Democrats putting up a candidate” against our popular local Mayor? Easton’s Mayor is a long time incumbent, running for his fourth consecutive term in office, and sixth term overall. His primary opponent is a younger local activist and Vice-Chair of the Northampton County Democratic Party. She happens to be younger, Pakistani, Muslim, and female. He happens to be older, Italian, and male. I stayed away from the demographics in my response though- I went with explaining that sometimes the activists and the commoners want different things, politically. Some of it is ideological. Some of it is identity driven. What I meant to say is that we are moving towards at least three different ideologies in this country, while still living in a two party system.
Let me just get this out of the way early in this piece, because most political people don’t get this, and actually will try to argue otherwise- people involved in politics have very little in common with the rest of the public, politically speaking. I’ve seen this play out in many forms over my 17 years in politics, and it never ceases to amaze me how clear it is. I remember how shocked I was when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, despite the huge crowds I had seen at rallies and protests against him, despite the success of movies and documentaries against him, and despite the seething passions I had seen while volunteering for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. I distinctly remember the shock of a State House candidate in 2008, when I explained to him that his name identification was 32% in his poll, despite the fact that he was a local elected official, or that his mother was the Dean at a college located in the district. Perhaps nothing struck me more so than learning that 30% of New Jersey’s likely voters had never heard of Bob Menendez, when I was working on his re-election campaign there in 2012. There’s a simple truth that “political people” don’t really understand- they’re different than most voters just because they do read the New York Times, watch cable news, and go to local political events. You aren’t like your neighbor, even if they vote, and even if they vote like you. To be clear, social media and the internet are beginning to narrow this gap, but rather than informing our electorate, they’ve become an outlet for propaganda, partial truths, and insane clickbait.
Politics has become a hellscape since I got involved in 2002. Our politics divides us in ways that we never would be in our every day lives. The level of discourse has fallen off a cliff. To be fair, one could point back to any number of points and say “it began there,” but I think it’s fair to start wondering out loud if somewhere in the last few years we crossed a line that took us past the point of no return (2016 in America). You can see the general public recoiling in real time- it’s why most people identify as independents in America right now. It’s why people across the political spectrum are choosing to not register with a political party. Despite high turnout in elections, much of the public hates to discuss politics, and even avoids it with their family and friends. America hates it’s body politic, and yet both parties are increasingly embrace it. Even their members embrace it, increasingly. Over two in five Republicans still believe President Obama was born in Kenya. For real. Only 38% of Iowa Democrats are sure they would be satisfied if the party nominated a straight, white man. A majority are fine with a more socialist nominee though. I will just remind you that the country as a whole doesn’t really agree though, with any of these positions.
So why is it that partisans are increasingly embracing people, issues, and messages that don’t resonate with the broader electorate? Why is it that the faces in the news for the Democrats recently include Bernie Sanders, AOC, Beto O’Rourke, and Ilhan Omar, and that President Trump makes real-time policy decisions based on the content of Fox and Friends, Ann Coulter’s Twitter, and Sean Hannity? Why did virtually every National Democratic figure call for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s resignation when past racist pictures of him emerged, even while the Virginia electorate was divided, and a solid majority of Virginia African-Americans wanted him to stay as Governor? Why do Republicans that previously opposed Donald Trump openly, and endured his open mockery of them and their families (Senators Graham and Cruz), still fall in line behind him? Why does it seem that both parties embrace their activist base at the expense of broader popularity?
Here’s the ugly truth- the political parties don’t really want to talk to the center of American political life. Party leaders, operatives, and activists alike aren’t really fond of moderates, the center, or swing states and districts. You don’t get into politics because you have middle of the road or mixed views- you get in because you’re passionate. This is bi-partisanly true, and it’s created a damn near suicide pact between the two political parties. There are no “Rockefeller Republicans” really left in Congress, and there are actually no pro-choice ones left in the House. The “Blue Dog Democrats” are down to a hand full in the whole Congress. If your political views are mixed, or just not that ideological, you probably don’t have a favorite Congressman.
But is that all? It’s beyond passions- it’s ultimately a business decision too. Who’s going to donate their $27 a month? Certainly not people less passionate and engaged. Who’s going to volunteer their three hours to canvass or phone bank on Saturday? The entire political model in the two parties is not fueled by the moderate and middle ground voters who decide which party wins. It’s fueled by the base. Not only does neither party’s decision makers want to direct their messaging towards the middle, they literally can’t. So every fundraising email depicts an emergency, talking points are directed towards the political poles, and deviating from party orthodoxy in the name of representing your district or state is frowned upon. Hence, Republicans call Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim and Democrats call Donald Trump a criminal. Neither party is even trying to appeal to the middle. They don’t have to, as long as the other party doesn’t either. People will still vote, because they’re patriotic and know it matters, and 135 million people will pick between “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger Together.” What’s your third option? Sit it out and not do your duty?
I have been joking on social media lately about the “fun” 2024 “AOC vs. Don Jr.” election that we’re moving towards. I’m only kind of joking. As I said at the top, we’re moving towards a three ideology state, between the people with the red hats on, the long line at SXSW to meet AOC, and the rest of the people who kind of just want their government to function and try to make their lives better. Both the red hats and the AOC fanboys will tell you they are trying to appease the third group. The rest of the people aren’t buying it though, which doesn’t really matter. They increasingly will be forced to pick between two choices that aren’t really trying to talk to them, and really, actually don’t have to.