A New Center? [Politics] [Wishful Thinking]

post by abramdemski · 2021-04-12T15:19:35.430Z · LW · GW · 36 comments

Political polarization in the USA has been increasing for decades, and has become quite severe. This may have a variety of causes, but it seems highly probable that the internet has played a large role, by facilitating the toxoplasma of rage to an unprecedented degree.

Recently I have the (wishful) feeling that the parties have moved so far apart that there is "room in the center". The left is for people who are fed up with the extremes of the right. The right is for people who are fed up with the extremes of the left. But where do people go if they've become fed up with both extremes?

The question is: how would the new center work? There's not room for a new political party; plurality voting makes that too difficult, because if the new party doesn't gain more than 1/3rd of the vote, it's basically a wasted vote.

Here is my proposal for what it could look like:

It might also be good for the initial set of criteria, or at least the rhetoric, to appeal to moderate libertarians as well, since that's a pre-existing group which considers its issues to be orthogonal to the usual political spectrum. I would personally think the core values of the new center should resemble Scott Alexander's take on classical liberalism:

So let’s derive why violence is not in fact The One True Best Way To Solve All Our Problems. You can get most of this from Hobbes, but this blog post will be shorter.

Suppose I am a radical Catholic who believes all Protestants deserve to die, and therefore go around killing Protestants. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, there might be some radical Protestants around who believe all Catholics deserve to die. If there weren’t before, there probably are now. So they go around killing Catholics, we’re both unhappy and/or dead, our economy tanks, hundreds of innocent people end up as collateral damage, and our country goes down the toilet.

So we make an agreement: I won’t kill any more Catholics, you don’t kill any more Protestants. The specific Irish example was called the Good Friday Agreement and the general case is called “civilization”.

So then I try to destroy the hated Protestants using the government. I go around trying to pass laws banning Protestant worship and preventing people from condemning Catholicism.

Unfortunately, maybe the next government in power is a Protestant government, and they pass laws banning Catholic worship and preventing people from condemning Protestantism. No one can securely practice their own religion, no one can learn about other religions, people are constantly plotting civil war, academic freedom is severely curtailed, and once again the country goes down the toilet.

So again we make an agreement. I won’t use the apparatus of government against Protestantism, you don’t use the apparatus of government against Catholicism. The specific American example is the First Amendment and the general case is called “liberalism”, or to be dramatic about it, “civilization 2.0”

Every case in which both sides agree to lay down their weapons and be nice to each other has corresponded to spectacular gains by both sides and a new era of human flourishing.

The classical-liberal rhetoric of the new center might be very similar to counterweight, except that counterweight only combats the extremes of one side (as expressed vividly by their name), rather than extremes on both sides.


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comment by Steven Byrnes (steve2152) · 2021-04-12T18:38:08.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was reading somewhere (here) that "swing voters" in USA are not temperamentally moderate. They may have a bunch of strong left opinions and also a bunch of strong right opinions.

It's almost more like, you're trying to create a big voter bloc that can be pandered to, just as voter blocs like teachers and police are pandered to today, kinda, right?

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T16:43:36.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting reference!

Yeah, I agree. The fantasy is to create a "swing voter bloc", with a formalized (fairly objective) declaration about how to pander. People who don't feel represented by either party, or by other blocs, can increase their voice by joining the bloc (provided they feel it could represent them, of course).

comment by Rob Bensinger (RobbBB) · 2021-04-12T16:03:35.073Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[Wishful Thinking]

Possibly-self-fulfilling-prophecy [LW · GW] warning!

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T16:39:58.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hopefully a positive one.

comment by Alexei · 2021-04-13T02:06:28.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this a lot and I think it’s worth serious effort to research some of the assumptions and obvious failure points (brought up by others here, although I think half of them are not addressing the core of your proposal)

Replies from: timothy-johnson, abramdemski
comment by Timothy Johnson (timothy-johnson) · 2021-04-13T20:48:16.131Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see a few other failure points mentioned, but no one has mentioned what I consider the primary obstacle - if membership in the New Center organization is easy, what prevents partisans from joining purely to influence its decisions? And if membership is hard, how do you find enough people willing to join?

The key idea that makes Bitcoin work is that it runs essentially a decentralized voting algorithm. Proof-of-work means that everyone gets a number of votes proportional to the computational power that they're willing to spend.

You need something similar to proof-of-work here, but I don't see any good way to implement it.

Replies from: Alexei
comment by Alexei · 2021-04-14T00:03:10.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure I follow. What prevents republicans from joining democrats?

I think the point is that you get peoples opt into the party and then show during elections that this party can indeed swing votes. That’s the proof of work.

Replies from: timothy-johnson
comment by Timothy Johnson (timothy-johnson) · 2021-04-14T10:52:40.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, let me try again, and be a little more direct. If the New Center starts to actually swing votes, Republicans will join and pretend to be centrists, while trying to co-opt the group into supporting Republicans.

Meanwhile, Democrats will join and try to co-opt the group into supporting Democrats.

Unless you have a way to ensure that only actual centrists have any influence, you'll end up with a group that's mostly made up of extreme partisans from both sides. And that will make it impossible for the group to function as intended.

Replies from: abramdemski, ryan_b
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-14T15:31:03.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here is another possible solution (which might be bad in other respects):

Maybe a formal declaration of membership only serves to increase the visibility of the group (by boosting numbers on their website). The actual position on issues cannot be "influenced". Instead, the New Center platform preforms imperial surveys of the general population to find issues on which there is broad agreement.

Or: official bloc membership might get you a voice in determining which issues get put on the surveys. But ultimately the surveys determine the New Center position.

This would make it difficult to take over the New Center and make it a mouthpiece for non-moderates (albeit not impossible).

comment by ryan_b · 2021-04-14T14:27:13.543Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The short answer is the same thing that prevents the target audience from joining the reds or the blues and influencing them in the direction they would prefer: too much work.

But based on the idea so far, I claim this is a requirement for effectiveness. In order to get either party to change their behavior, they need to have a good understanding of what this group of swing voters want, and that requires getting an inside view.

It is much, much harder to persuade a group of people than it is to simply tell them what they want to hear.  You will be encouraged to know that this is the formal position of virtually all political operatives, because their unit of planning is an election campaign and research shows that is too short a time to effectively persuade a population of voters.

It would also be super weird if when targeting disaffected voters in the middle there were no converts from the disaffected margins of either major party (who presumably will still naturally advocate for the things that drew them to the party in the first place, which is almost the same as a true believer in the party advocating). This too is a desirable outcome.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T16:57:55.452Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have time for this. Do you? Is/should it be a priority? I have other ideas which may or may not make it more probable (which I excluded from the post out of an abundance of caution).

Replies from: Alexei
comment by Alexei · 2021-04-13T23:59:14.426Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No I don’t have time for this unfortunately. I suppose it’s probably worth at the very least publishing this on medium and posting to relevant subreddits.

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-14T01:41:54.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of the other comments have reminded me of your linkpost about digital democracy [LW · GW]. Specifically, the idea of seeking surprising agreement which was mentioned.

In the OP, I posited that "the new center" should have a strong, simple set of issues, pre-selected to cater to people who are sick of both sides. But I think Stuart Anderson [LW(p) · GW(p)] is right: it shouldn't focus so much on the battle between the two sides; it should focus on the surprising commonality between people.

As Steven Byrnes mentioned [LW(p) · GW(p)], swing voters aren't exactly moderate; rather, they tend to have extreme views which don't fit within existing party lines. The article Byrnes linked to also points out that the consensus within party elites of both parties is very different from the consensus within the party base.

I find myself forming the hypothesis that politicians have a tendency to over-focus on divisive issues, and miss some issues on which there is broad agreement. (This would be an interesting question to investigate, if someone really did a feasibility study on the whole idea.)

My new suggestion for the new-center platform would be, rather than distilling complaints about both sides, seek surprising agreement in the way mentioned in that podcast you linked.

The proposal would be something like this:

  • You register with The New Center platform. This involves "signing" a non-binding agreement to vote according to the New Center recommendations.
    • I'm imagining that you're never asked to promise to vote a specific way, but rather, you are asked to affirm that you agree with the argument that making such a commitment would increase your voting power overall. (Mostly because something feels shady to me about actually making people promise to vote a specific way.)
  • The platform crowdsources issues, and aggregates New Center opinions on those issues, looking for issues where there is broad agreement.
    • This might be done by something like quadratic voting, letting people spend points to indicate how much they care about an issue, so that you get information on the strength of preferences rather than only their existence.
  • The platform publicizes the issues on which there is broad agreement. The main purpose of this is so that politicians know the issues on which they will be judged. A secondary purpose is to attract new people to the New Center platform, if the current New Center consensus resonates with them.
  • Finally, the platform rates political candidates on the consensus criteria, and makes recommendations on that basis. (This is probably also done in a democratized way.)
    • It could also be interesting to keep track of New Center's preferences wrt bills being voted on in legislative bodies, and keep track of politician's record in terms of voting with New Center. Politicians with a record of voting according to New Center recommendations should be rewarded by the system, even if their voting record goes against what's now the consensus of New Center, because (in the long term) the hope is that some politicians end up deferring to New Center's opinions (at least some of the time). So you want to avoid punishing that behavior just because New Center flip-flops on an issue. However, that's a corner case which may not be that important (because hopefully, New Center finds issues with broad appeal on which there isn't so much flip-flop in public opinion over time).
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-04-12T19:00:01.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Political polarization in the USA has been increasing for decades, and has become quite severe. This may have a variety of causes, but it seems highly probable that the internet has played a large role, by facilitating the toxoplasma of rage to an unprecedented degree.

Contra the idea that the internet is to blame, polarization seems historically to be the "natural" state in both the USA and elsewhere. To get less of it you need specific mechanism that have a moderating effect.

For a long time in the US this was a combination of progressive Republicans (Whigs and abolitionists) and regressive Democrats (Dixiecrats) that caused neither major party to be able to form especially polarized policy positions. Once the Civil Rights Act and Roe v. Wade drove Dixiecrats out of the Democratic party and progressives out of the Republican party, respectively, the parties became able to align more on policy.

So extending this observation, rather than a new center, maybe what we need to get less polarization is something to hold the parties together along some line that's orthogonal to policy preferences such that both parties must tolerate a wide range of opinions. I'm not sure how to do that, as the above situation was created by the Civil War and Reconstruction that made variously the Republican and Democrat parties unacceptable to certain voters (like former slaveholders and abolitionists) and it was only after a hundred years that identification with or against the "Party of Lincoln" melted away enough to allow a shift.

Maybe your new center idea could cause this, but I'm not reading in it a strong enough coordination mechanism to overcome the nature tendency for parties to align in opposite directions.

Replies from: ChristianKl, abramdemski
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-04-12T19:19:05.106Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Contra the idea that the internet is to blame, polarization seems historically to be the "natural" state in both the USA and elsewhere. To get less of it you need specific mechanism that have a moderating effect

The US got steadily more polarized along political lines over the last decades by metrics such as how important it is for people that their spouse shares their party affiliation while getting less polarized along race by those metrics. 

Matt Talibbi's Hate Inc is a book that describes the process over the last decades well. 

comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T17:00:23.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting model, thanks!

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-04-13T09:02:21.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Having extreme political opinion is unfortunately correlated with being politically engaged. A majority of the people who don't have extreme opinions aren't engaged enough for a project like this. Even in the general population a majority doesn't vote in primaries. 

I would expect that it makes more sense to focus on voting reform in individual states then to build up such a pesudo party.

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T17:03:34.535Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think voting reform is highly implausible, because "voting reform" has come to mean instant runoff voting, which is barely better (and probably much worse for political polarization in particular, due to the center-squeeze problem).

Not to say that "a new center" is really plausible, though ;p

comment by ryan_b · 2021-04-14T15:53:27.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta level: strong upvote, because I strongly endorse this kind of thinking (actionable-ish, focused on coordination problems); I am also very excited that we are now showing signs of being able to tackle politics reliably without tripping over our traditional taboo.

Object level: I wonder if you'd consider revising your position on the not-a-party point. Referring to your comment else-thread: 

Instead, the proposal is to organize a legible voting bloc. More like "environmentalists" than "the green party".

Environmentalists are a movement, and not an organization; the proposal is for an organization. They are a single-topic group that tackles a narrow range of policies; the proposal shows no intention of isolating itself to a narrow range of policies.

What you have proposed is an organization which will recruit voters, establish consensus within the organization on a broad range of policies, with the goal of increasing their power as voters, and you intend to compete directly with the two major parties in their values. Finally, there are no environmentalist kingmaker organizations precisely because there are lots of environmental organizations, which means the positions of individual environmental organizations are not particularly meaningful in elections; this means the organization will need to compete with, or co-opt voters from, other organizations with similar values/goals.

I put it to you that the most natural fit for what you are proposing is a new political party which chooses not to put candidates on the ballot.

This is an ingenious strategy, in my view: by not advancing candidates, the organization is liberated from the focus on winning campaigns, and it is the focus on winning campaigns that drives most of the crappy behavior from the major parties.  At the same time, creating a legible block of voters does a marvelous job of avoiding direct competition while capitalizing on the short-term incentives direct competition creates.

This looks to me very much like a political party that takes the short-term hit of not directly holding office in exchange for the freedom to place longer-term bets on values and policy overall.  As you observed with third-party viability, winning office is unlikely and so not even trying is not much of a hit, and the potential upside is big.

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-15T16:07:41.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I put it to you that the most natural fit for what you are proposing is a new political party which chooses not to put candidates on the ballot.

It does seem necessary to settle the terminology better; I agree that the terms I've been inconsistently using so far seem inadequate (voting bloc, platform, movement, group, ...?). I'm still not convinced "party" is the best term. But I have some sympathy for your points.

I would much prefer that people call the group "the new center" or "neocentrists" or whatever, as opposed to "the new center party" "the moderate party" etc.

Alas, running (or even starting) a party/whatever sounds incredibly time consuming. :(

Replies from: ryan_b
comment by ryan_b · 2021-04-15T18:39:09.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you were to go to the national level, absolutely. But I expect that a local-level experiment could be done entirely part-time on a volunteer basis. I expect this because the local-level major party apparatus is usually a part-time volunteer operation. Further, the threshold for success is much, much lower: you can achieve kingmaker status in a lot of locales by forging a bloc of a score of votes.

comment by shminux · 2021-04-12T20:37:10.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's tempting to try to reinvent the wheel, but this dynamic is by no means new. There have been viable political alternatives popping in the middle in various places around the world. Not as many as those emerging from the right or from the left,  One can argue that the US is unique in many ways, and it sure is, but the degree of uniqueness would only become clear once you identify the common trends. 

From what I understand, the process of emergence of a centrist party is usually by one of the mainstream parties not being radical enough for a large chunk of its base, splitting the party in two, one more extreme and one more centrist. It happened in Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy and many other places. The odds of creating a centrist political force from scratch are not good, and require much shallow equilibria than those in most de facto two-party systems.  For example, the Israel Resilience Party was created in 2018 on the multi-party background and many years of political gridlock.

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T17:11:37.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment makes me want to reiterate that I am not proposing a new party. A new party needs more than 1/3rd of voters, at least regionally, in order to be viable (that is, in order to avoid shooting itself in the foot by causing its base to waste votes). I agree that splitting an existing party is mostly the only way a new centrist party could happen.

Instead, the proposal is to organize a legible voting bloc. More like "environmentalists" than "the green party".

The fact that new parties empirically can pop up in the middle is, however, encouraging.

comment by crl826 · 2021-04-14T00:44:50.422Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What values are exclusively centrist?

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-14T01:47:50.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's an empirical question!

See my refined proposal. [LW(p) · GW(p)]

comment by Lucas2000 · 2021-04-12T15:50:17.038Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have two thoughts on this:

  1. It seems to me that a winner-take-all election for an immensely powerful head of the executive branch of the government necessarily creates a two-party system (or something similar to a two-party system, as has happened in Germany), even if you ignore all other issues. Since there is no general feeling that having a powerful president is inherently problematic, there will not be a strong third party.
  2. It's not entirely clear to me what concrete positions a hypothetical center party would take. The two parties aren't that far apart, if you ignore identity politics issues. One party wants taxes a bit higher, the other wants taxes a bit lower, but they're not that far apart. One party wants basic health insurance to be governed by legislation, the other by the free market, but they're both pretty similar ideas. There is no room for a center party because there is no space between the two parties, regardless of how angry they are at each other. In fact, the anger might be an example of narcissism of small differences, where the two sides are so angry at each other precisely because they hold similar positions, and need other ways to differentiate themselves. Hence, to focus on nonsensical issues like trying to ban people from bathrooms, or complaining about Dr. Seuss.
Replies from: abramdemski, ChristianKl, Pattern
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-12T16:53:36.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1a. The proposal here is not to get rid of the two-party system, but rather, to reduce polarization. My view here is that polarization is harmful.

1b. The proposal attempts to work within the two-party system, rather than create a true third party.

1c. Why do you think a two-party system has to do with a strong executive? Mathematical arguments suggest that plurality voting eventually results in a two-party system, because you're usually wasting your vote if you vote for anyone other than the two candidates with the highest probability of winning. Similarly, mathematical arguments suggest that instant runoff voting will eventually result in a two-party system, because out of the top three candidates, the most moderate will often be "squeezed out" (instant runoff voting isn't very kind to compromise candidates). Other voting methods are much more mathematically favorable to multi-party systems. Therefore I tend to assume that the voting method is the culprit. However, abstract arguments like this don't necessarily reflect reality, so I'm open to the idea that a strong executive is the real culprit. But why do you think this?

1d. What happened in Germany?

2a. Gun control and immigration preferences differ a lot between the two parties. Recently, preferences about police funding are very different. I think budgetary differences are large. I believe there are many other issues. I have seen graphs illustrating that the increasing political polarization can be seen rather vividly by only looking at how politicians vote (IE it's gotten much easier to predict party affiliation from what legislation a politician supports). Also, similar graphs for voters (IE it's gotten much easier to separate republicans and democrats based on survey questions). 

2b. But you're right, policy questions are not really the main driver of polarization or of my personal perception of polarization, or even of my wish to reduce polarization. Rather, identity politics (the pressure to identify with one side or the other) is the main driver of all three. My wish for a "new center" is a wish for a (widely recognized) tribal affiliation which offers an alternative, and a "return to sanity" in the media resulting from this. (The point of the "kingmaker" mechanism is to incentivize rhetoric from both sides to be less extreme.)

Replies from: Pattern, Measure
comment by Pattern · 2021-04-12T17:21:01.957Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
(The point of the "kingmaker" mechanism is to incentivize rhetoric from both sides to be less extreme.)

What do you do if both defect?

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T17:15:15.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Select whoever defected least.

An important mechanism for avoiding this failure mode would be to encourage new-centrists to be involved in political primaries.

comment by Measure · 2021-04-13T00:10:23.663Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My read is that the winner-take-all voting system causes the two-party system, which in turn amplifies polarization. Maybe voting reform can be the/an issue to unite the center? If we can destabilize the two-party attractor, I expect a new center would be a natural consequence without further effort (or things would shift such that "new center" is no longer a meaningful/useful concept).

Replies from: abramdemski
comment by abramdemski · 2021-04-13T17:15:59.677Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Totally agree.

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-04-12T19:15:05.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that a winner-take-all election for an immensely powerful head of the executive branch of the government necessarily creates a two-party system (or something similar to a two-party system, as has happened in Germany), even if you ignore all other issues.

Germany has neither a winner-take-all election nor a two-party system.

Replies from: mikkel-wilson
comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2021-04-15T02:09:44.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Germany does have a winner-take-all mechanism for the executive branch; the parliament is appointed proportionately, but the chancellor is the singular head of government, and is appointed by the Bundestag in a way that, in extreme cases where consensus cannot be reached, regresses to plurality voting (FPTP).

I'm not familiar with the German situation, but in Denmark (whose system served as a model for the German system), while there are multiple parties, there is still a two-bloc system, where each party either aligns with the red bloc (supporting the Social Democrats / Socialdemokraterne) or the blue bloc (led by the Winstar party / Venstre), with the prime minister always coming from one of the two major parties. I presume the situation in Germany isn't so different, and that this is what Lucas2000 is referring to by "something similar to a two-party system".

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-04-15T08:39:33.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Germany is currently governed by a coalition between the major center-left and center-right party if you want to use the traditional terms. That's something different then one of two parties right or left from center.

The head of government in the German system also has a lot less power then a US president.

New parties are able to enter parliament and as long as they have >5% and gets seats nobody sees those votes as wasted.

comment by Pattern · 2021-04-12T17:19:42.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
One party wants basic health insurance to be governed by legislation, the other by the free market, but they're both pretty similar ideas. There is no room for a center party because there is no space between the two parties, regardless of how angry they are at each other.

Enable or enforce price transparency in healthcare. Seems easy to appeal to both sides (whether or not implementation is simple).