There is no such thing as a “radical moderate” in American politics.
As the extremes of the parties pull away from one another, a large swath of the American electorate sits frustrated and unserved. However, those voters in the “exhausted majority” do not necessarily represent the sort of cosmopolitan centrism usually touted by political elites. According to new research out this week, there are many core issues where moderates break with the progressive movement in America. If the Democratic Party runs in 2020 on a campaign that ignores the sometimes more conservative values of the political middle — such as religious faith or a belief in hard work to overcome obstacles — data suggests they will seriously limit their ability to make inroads with the political middle.
In an extensive and rigorous look at tribalism in American politics out this week, researchers with More in Common have put together a study that highlights the areas of greatest political division, and illuminates just what core questions most profoundly separate out the extremes from the political center. The report, titled “Hidden Tribes,” breaks America down into seven groups, ranging from progressive activists (at 8 percent of all voters) to devoted conservatives (at 6 percent of all voters). In the middle, groups like the politically disengaged and moderates comprise the bulk of the population but a small amount of the political activity.
The report does not focus on standard policy position questions, but rather on the deep, core values and beliefs that so often drive our behavior. That's new and valuable.
However, the authors of the report make an unfortunate decision to lump both devoted and “traditional” conservatives (at 6 and 19 percent of the population respectively) under the category of a conservative “wing,” while considering all but the very furthest Left slice of liberal America to be part of a broad, underserved majority seeking compromise. In fact, there are a host of areas in the study that highlight just the opposite, illuminating where middle in fact aligns with the conservative “wing” much more closely, and where it is liberals who hold views quite divergent from the rest of the American public.
For instance, the study presents a valuable breakdown of how the various groups feel about “moral foundations,” concepts such as authority, fairness, care, loyalty, and purity. While progressive activists and liberals report that “care” and “fairness” are far and away the two most important moral foundations, the other four groups — the moderate and conservative groups — look much more similar to one another, fairly strongly endorsing all five foundations. When asked if they felt people who work hard can be successful no matter what situation they were born into, two-thirds of the disengaged and the moderates agreed, placing them fairly close to conservatives on that issue, while only a quarter of liberals and five percent of progressive activists agree.
On issues like faith, race, and free speech, progressive activists are far, far away from the political center. While 92 percent of progressive activists and 66 percent of traditional liberals say racism is not taken seriously enough nowadays, only around a third of moderates and the disengaged agree.
Asked about professional athletes kneeling during the anthem as an act of protest, while moderates were split right down the middle, the politically disengaged believe by a two-to-one margin that athletes should have to stand. Or take the question of the role of faith and science in America; majorities of moderates and the disengaged believe America needs more faith and religion versus needing more reason and science, putting them much closer to traditional conservatives than traditional liberals. And among the moderates in the study, 89 percent said they felt political correctness has “gone too far.”
There are, of course, plenty of areas where that conservative “wing” the researchers identify differs from the moderates and the disengaged. Conservatives are less concerned with the issue of “poor leadership” (presumably because they like the country’s current leadership) than are those in the center. Moderates tend to be more upbeat about immigration than the conservatives studied. (However, the issue rates lower in importance for the middle than it does for the conservative base.) And looking at results by gender, even traditional conservative women hold very different views than their male counterparts on whether women have equal opportunity in the workplace.
But it is hard to read the results of the study without feeling a strong sense that the energy on the far Left of the Democratic Party is extremely far removed from where the underserved political middle sits, and that on questions pertaining to some of the most polarizing issues, that middle may find itself more at home with those on the Right. Radical moderates, there are not. But in elections that must be won by looking beyond a core base of supporters and reaching those not-so-radical moderates, Democrats would be wise to avoid the temptation to be led by the most extreme views.