Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OFF CENTER....William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have written a new report that urges Democrats to move to the center if they ever want to become a majority party again. Their thesis: emulating Karl Rove and appealing increasingly to the liberal base won't work because, as the Washington Post summarizes, "there are simply not enough left-leaning voters to make this a workable strategy."

There's something to that. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it in their new book, Off Center:

Between 1974 and 2004, the party breakdown of House members from the eleven former states of the confederacy reversed from two-thirds Democrat to almost two-thirds Republican. As everyone who follows politics knows, this massive transformation is the key to understanding the Republican Party's capture of Congress in the 1990s.

That's a switch of about 10% of all the seats in Congress, and there are times when I think there's really nothing else worth saying about American politics. Galston and Kamarck are right: when there's an electoral switch of that magnitude, the losing side doesn't have much choice except to adapt.

But it turns out that's not the whole story, because in Off Center Hacker and Pierson also provide a ton of evidence that, congressional results notwithstanding, Americans haven't become any more conservative over the past three decades. Nor has the activist base of the Democratic party become more liberal. Rather, it's the activist base of the Republican party that's gotten more extreme. The chart on the right, my favorite from the book, shows the startling story: compared to independent voters, Republican activists have gotten far more extreme since 1980, while over the same period the Democratic base has actually become more moderate.

In other words, contra Galston and Kamarck, the liberal base is not really the problem a lot of people make it out to be. It's the Republican base that's far outside the mainstream.

And yet, Republicans keep on winning anyway. But why? How is it that a party can continue to drift farther and farther from the center of American politics the Holy Grail of most political strategists and yet continue to be successful? Why is the center no longer holding?

Next week Hacker and Pierson will be guest blogging here and are going to explain how it is that an increasingly radical minority has successfully built an electoral majority that's become practically unassailable. They've written a good book with a compelling argument, and I think you're going to enjoy chatting with these guys.

In the meantime, ponder this chart and wonder what it all means.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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