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When Politics Loses Its Moderates What's Remains Isn't Pretty

by Glen Pearson

We have heard the refrain repeatedly in the last few years: who don’t good people run for politics anymore? Mmmmmm. That’s a little bit tough to quantify, but there have been a number of qualified people in interviews in Canada, the U.S. and Britain whose reasons for not seeking election are remarkably similar – Wild West mentality, hyper-partisanship, polarization of society, and the inability of citizens of differing persuasions to staying in the room long enough to find consensus. I heard it from people all the time and it’s likely there’s something to it.

Now we find that in America moderate politicians in Congress are opting out for the same reasons. Take a look at this chart and you get the rough outlines of the story.

It’s all part of a book by Danielle Thomsen called, Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates. Her research has revealed that both liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats get much less out of Congress than do their more extreme colleagues and it’s causing them to choose not to run again. She created a data set of such individuals in Congress from 1980 – 2012 and was surprised by what she discovered. Here it is in her own words:

Here’s what I found: The number of moderates who ran for Congress from 1980 to 2012 has clearly declined. Although moderate Democrats … constituted more than 20 percent of Democratic candidates in 1980, they made up only 5 percent of the Democratic pool in 2012. Similarly, moderate Republicans … made up 11 percent of Republican candidates in 1980 and a high of 16 percent of the pool in 1990, but had also dwindled to only 5 percent by 2012.

In interviewing 20 candidates from both parties, Thomsen heard the repeated refrain that the parties had drifted apart and no longer sought consensus. They all confessed that Congress has become less pleasant, and since finding compromise and a way ahead isn’t the goal any longer, they can’t envision staying in the political game. Whereas moderates were often the historical deal makers in assisting both parties to come together, today the Republicans and Democrats as so far apart that such compromises are hardly possible.

Two things are transpiring as a result of this rigidity. First, moderate lawmakers are more likely to retire and moderate potential candidates are less likely to take the political plunge. That’s where the Wild West analogy comes in. There are many women and men in politics that just aren’t gunslingers and partisan hacks. But since politics looks more and more like a frontier town, they are deciding that it just isn’t for them. The same holds true for those who once considered running in the first place.

The second lesson is obvious: the result of all this is an increasingly polarized politics. As long as the extremes keep putting up candidates for office at the same time as moderates from the various political spectrums sit it out, then we can only expect more of the same in the next decade, only much more dysfunctional.

None of this is new to us. In Canada we have been fortunate enough to have been spared the worst of this. But the extreme elements are still there in our politics at all three levels of government. Yet even in this country more and more people are refusing to take a run for politics. If we keep losing principled moderate people, then our politics will exacerbate our divisions and only manipulate our naïveté.

Created By
Glen Pearson
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Photo credit: HighRoad Institute

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