The Slow Death of the Partisan Moderate

It’s been said that we fall in love the way we fall asleep — slowly, and then all at once. The death of what I call the “partisan moderate” has occurred in much the same way. We spent years watching the partisan moderate die, and then 2016 killed him.

In so many ways, the 2016 presidential primaries fractured the lens through which we view American politics. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, a non-Democrat, took the party’s heir apparent and establishment queen, Hillary Clinton, to the brink; he was considerably old, used a politically filthy word to describe himself, and had little support from the party’s apparatus. Not to be outdone, the Republican Primary surpassed this political drama and nominated a man who had no party allegiance, no support from prominent Republican officials or donors, and a tendency to criticize Republican leadership, including the last Republican president. That man not only earned the Republican nomination, but later, somehow, beyond reason, he became our 45th president.

These were instructive primaries. Gone are the days where moderate, unifying language is the winning approach to politics. We used to value words like “compromise” and phrases like “reach across the aisle.” No more. Underlying these losses is the most dramatic and important development of recent American politics: politicians no longer get elected by promising to unify the American people. They don’t even aim to unify their own party. Instead, the way to win is to distance one’s self from the other party as much as possible.

That new paradigm killed the partisan moderate. But how did we get there?

Let’s take a step back. What is a partisan moderate, you ask? I admit it sounds oxymoronic. We picture partisans as the antithesis of moderation, and moderates the antithesis of partisanship.

But I don’t think that’s the case. The way I see it, as our two parties took their modern shape in the last century or so, they actually reflected two relatively moderate ideologies  — a center-left party and a center-right party. Many smaller fringe parties have come and gone in the last hundred years, most of which were further left of our elected liberals (now the Democrats) and further right of our elected conservatives (now the Republicans). In fact, a reason our two major parties were able to become and remain the major parties at all was because they were moderate enough to attract a broad spectrum of voters. It used to be that political radicalism made one’s self or one’s party so unpalatable that political success — which essentially boils down to winning a popularity contest — was impossible.

Now, while there are certainly still fringe parties further from the center than our two main parties, we’ve seen recent developments in American society push the parties away from that center and closer to those fringes. We’ll circle back to 2016 as this development’s greatest and most obvious manifestation, but those primaries were just the high-profile result of a much longer process.

Our two parties and their respective ideologies were drifting apart long before Sanders and Trump upended conventional political wisdom. Examine this chart from Pew, which started a survey over 20 years ago asking 10 ideological questions on economic and social issues:


The pattern of one’s answers to the 10 questions was once determined as much by one’s race as party, while religiosity, education, age, and gender were comparably determinant. Since then, however, one’s party has increasingly towered over the other factors when influencing one’s political opinions. That’s a clear trend toward enhanced partisanship in the American public.

Another way to look at it is what Pew describes as a “declining share of Americans” who hold a “mix of liberal and conservative views.”


Note how we once had a mountainous middle of moderates, but in the last 13 years partisans have terraformed that mountain into a plateau. At this rate, within a generation the graphic will look like a crater.

Meanwhile (and predictably), our politicians have mirrored this divisive pattern. (Whether we follow them or they us is difficult to determine. It’s rather chicken-and-egg-ish.) A 2015 study of votes in the House of Representatives found that the rate of crossover voting has steeply dropped. Among the study’s many fascinating graphics, the one below, which charts House votes in each Congressional session, is the most instructive. In essence, the blue dots represent Democratic House members who heavily vote along Democratic lines, red dots mean the same for Republican House members voting Republican, and the gray represents the amount of crossover voting by each member. Watch what happens…


Our House members, like us, have run to different corners.

Of course, that’s just the tempestuous House, always running for re-election in relatively monolithic Congressional districts. What of more mature, longer-termed Senators who must appeal to more diverse, statewide constituencies? CQ Roll Call found that, like the lower chamber, the Senate has also grown considerably more partisan as well. Here are graphs charting the growing pattern of party members in both chambers voting in lockstep with their party:


Clearly, partisan moderates, whether average voters or elected officials, used to exist. They were members of a party because they had a certain worldview and saw benefits to being part of a political bloc, but they also were open-minded enough to see the other side once in a while. More recently, however, these types of officials are considerably rarer. The death of partisan moderates was indeed slow, but then, in the last two decades, they began taking their final, laborious breaths.

To what do owe this bifurcation? There are many factors, but I would say three are chief among them: first, cable news and social media, which have made it so easy to consume, like, follow, and retweet compatible ideas, particularly ones that castigate opposing views, ultimately trapping us in our infamous political bubbles; next, the resultingly rabid base of each party grows emboldened, frequently imposing litmus tests on each other and their candidates, only accepting, promoting, and funding the most ideologically pure among them; and finally, those socially connected rabid ideologues push these pure candidates through a primary system that rewards extreme partisans over moderate ones.

This increased partisanship is lamentable, but it’d still be tolerable if the result was reasoned, educated disagreement coupled with mutual respect and an effort to negotiate. However, perhaps the worst effect of this increased partisanship is how we’ve begun viewing those who disagree with our politics. Our social and traditional media have so effectively convinced us that the other side is evil and/or stupid and/or corrupt and/or selfish and/or dangerous and/or unpatriotic that we’re starting to hold considerable antipathy toward that other side, especially when we fall into the trap of only trusting and forwarding the sources which have ideologies with which we already agree.[1]

Thus, we’ve seen a rise in what’s called “negative partisanship” — or supporting one’s own party in part because it is the best chance to block the other one. The aforementioned Pew survey found that in 1994, fewer than 20 percent of each party had a “very unfavorable” opinion of the opposing party. Now, however, that number has climbed to about 45 percent for each party. In other words, nearly half of each party has a strong negative opinion of the other, and that number is rapidly climbing.

Part of this is because members of both parties seem to think their own party is level-headed while only the other side has radicalized:

FT_16.08.23_ideologySelf_partyIdeologyAccording to this survey, Republicans see themselves as a center-right party and Democrats as a far left party. Democrats, on the other hand, see themselves as a center-left party and Republicans as a far right party. Isn’t that something?[2] Now, ask yourself, what’s more likely: that one party truly has a clear sense of self and an accurate image of the party to which they don’t belong, OR that many members of each party have developed a similarly narrow vision when it comes to politics? Though objectivity suggests the latter, both parties’ bases behave like it’s the former.

And so 2016 happened. The base took control of the Republican Party and put Donald J. Trump behind the wheel, while the Democratic establishment only barely ducked under Bernie Sanders’s warning shot. Both parties’ bases demanded someone who would aggressively champion their own reasonable values and fight like hell to block the other side’s radicalism.

Unfortunately, this pattern is only growing in strength. We’re increasingly divided and angry at the other side, and our politicians mirror that growing divide. And, since there’s very little political success to be had trying to moderate the national debate — a tactic that would alienate the most passionate voters on both sides — we can expect base-pleasing as the most likely way to win big primaries and elections. We’ll continue to drift apart politically while resenting the other side personally.

So you see why I’m concerned. Earlier this month, we heard some pretty terrific speeches at the funeral for Senator John McCain, particularly from former presidents Bush and Obama. All speeches seemed to embrace McCain’s nation-before-party approach and the old values of bipartisan tolerance. I worry, however, they were doing more than just remembering a great man. I fear they were eulogizing the partisan moderate.


[1]A pet theory of mine is that if I supported one party with this website, more people would share it. My most popular pieces are usually the ones where I’ve been either very complimentary of my subject (like with Ted Cruz‘s primary bid and Gary Johnson’s third-party run) or very critical (like with Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, or, more frequently, this President of ours). But alas, much more often than that I try to contextualize, and my contextualizing isn’t sexy, nor am I.

[2]A great example of this phenomenon was Hillary Clinton’s political career. The Democratic base thought she was way too moderate, but Republicans thought she was extremely liberal. They’re looking at the same record, right?


12 thoughts on “The Slow Death of the Partisan Moderate”

  1. I no longer know what “conservative” means. Does it necessarily mean gerrymandering, voter suppression, tax cuts for the rich, and supporting the presidency of a mendacious buffoon? Or are those attributes of a corrupt and desperate political gang? I can imagine “liberals” (though I haven’t seen) doing all that while advocating women’s rights, better education, public health, racial equality, and so on.


  2. […] Of course, the willingness to work with the other party — think Governor Christie welcoming President Obama to post-Sandy New Jersey or the pragmatic Amy Klobuchar throwing cold water on fiery progressive ideas — made/makes it difficult to win their respective party’s primary. (For more on this trend, read The Slow Death of the Partisan Moderate.) […]


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