New Research May Explain the Weakness of Centrism and the Religious Left

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A new profile of the wonderfully foul-mouthed political scientist and rising election prognisticator Rachel Bitecofer describes her theories about voting as “unsettling,” and there’s no question that they’ve been received that way by many. They certainly have caused a stir.

In brief, Bitecofer disputes the conventional wisdom that elections are won or lost on the decisions of swing voters. Most forecasters assume that voters who switch back and forth between Republican and Democrat make up between 15 and 20 percent of the electorate. Bitecofer thinks it’s more like 6-7%, with the remainder being “closet partisans” who despite all protestations to the contrary almost always side with the same party. In her model, the deciding factor is instead competing bases: the party that gets its base to the polls wins—or more precisely, the party whose base stays home loses. It’s better for politicians, in this view, to give up trying to win over the undecided, and simply start tossing red meat to their base.

As the profile points out, this challenges the status quo on any number of levels. If accepted, it would mean that traditional methods of polling and forecasting elections are wrong. It would mean that interviewing supposed white swing voters in working-class midwestern diners was just as ineffective. It would mean that the punditry of people like Chuck Todd or Chris Cillizza is—not to put too fine a point on it—hot garbage. Because if Bitecofer is right, there’s not much of a “messy middle” to appeal to.

Modern elections, in her view, aren’t about candidates, or their positions, or compromises appealing to the broadest swathe of voters. They aren’t even about the art of persuasion, when it gets down to it. They’re about group identity, and hating the other guys more than you hate your own. It’s negative partisanship that makes U.S. politics go around, according to Bitecofer: American society is divided into two sprawling coalitions that fear and loathe the other, and the side that best taps into that existential ego threat is likely to come out on top.

Bitecofer’s not necessarily right, and she is only one voice among many in the complex conversation of election nerdery. But her views seems intuitively right to anyone coming out of left-blogdom in the last fifteen years, as I do. What we cynics have seen time after time is Republicans playing the fear card, smearing their opponents with connections to everything from terrorism to racial conflict to sexual predation in women’s bathrooms. And it works! There are limits, but in general, the GOP has managed to parlay an unpopular agenda into stunning political gains and holds.

Democrats haven’t completely eschewed negative partisanship: it’s how they rode to victory in congressional elections in 2006, playing on voter weariness with the incompetence of the Bush administration. Even the great uniter himself, Barack Obama, worked it in 2008 by depicting himself as a far more appealing option to the bitter partisanship of the GOP. He may have thought he was rising above, but he won by not being those guys.

To look at recent history from the flip side, we’ve seen Beyoncé-knows-how-many centrist candidates fail because they tried to split the difference between Democratic and Republican positions. They were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, and consequently were spat out.

There may be more than a little confirmation bias here, then, but I do think Bitecofer’s theory corresponds with what I’ve been saying for quite a while about the specifically religious left. For a long time, it was premised on finding “common values” between liberal and conservative Christians (that narrow focus was another problem). But that always seemed like a pipe dream. Conservative Christians were always more partisan—and more sectarian—than the people who tried to reach out to them, and they weren’t interested in playing nice with people they considered wrong-headed at best and apostates at worst. I was once told by a member of my congregation that I was the kind of guy who would hold the gas chamber doors when “they” ushered in conservative Christians, which spoiled any transpartisan illusions I may have had.

To make matters worse, the explosion of the “nones” in recent years meant that Democrats had a lot more to lose by not standing up for core positions. To give a concrete example, consider an argument made by Kristen Day of Democrats for Life, who I’ve mentioned before. According to Day, 20% of pro-life Dems would only vote for a pro-life presidential nominee, and indeed that’s the case, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll. The problem is that 25% of Dems who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases would only vote for a like-minded candidate.

Since that latter group represents about 70% of the party, moving to a pro-life candidate (or even conceding too much ground on the issue) would be a net loser: you lose about 6% of Dems by ticking off pro-lifers, and 17% by cheesing off the pro-choicers. As the party includes more religiously unaffiliated voters, these numbers only increase. It would be a terrible mistake for Democrats to follow Day’s advice and seek a “big tent” on this issue to defeat Trump. They need to keep their 94% fired up and ready to ride, not pursue a small demographic that likely can’t be brought around under any circumstances.

Fortunately, the rank-and-file religious left seems to be moving away from mushy transpartisan centrism toward a more populist stance. That coincides with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic party, but whether there’s cause to go along with that correlation is harder to say. What seems more likely is that the religious left, writ large, is simply one part of Bitecofer’s competing bases, less shaping the political conversation than being shaped by it.

These changes notwithstanding, Bitecofer’s theory helps explain why the religious left has been less effective politically than its counterpart on the right. To date, the movement’s leadership has been premised on the idea that sentiments like “come, let us reason together” will draw together well-meaning people on both sides of the aisle for fruitful conversation. This sometimes works in congregations, but not in the political realm. Because the religious left has been historically more interested in compromise than in turning out footsoldiers, as the Religious Right does, it just hasn’t had the same kind of heft.

That’s largely by preference: seemingly every conversation with or about the religious left has to begin with a ritual disavowal of any similarity with the Religious Right. That’s their decision to make. I simply bring it up because it seems like where we’re at these days is having to make a lot of decisions about what we as a nation want to do, and who we want to be: an educated urban nation driven by technological innovation and fed by diversity, or a monocultural, inward-looking exurban and rural nation based on farming, manufacturing and traditional social norms?

Bitecofer’s model suggests that these questions about identity are what fuel our national politics, and until they’re settled, there will be precious little room for compromise, or even persuasion. Sometimes you just have to make up your damn mind, one way or another. Whatever form the religious left takes in 2020 or beyond, I hope it will help voters do just that.