December 20, 2004

Independently Moderate

Marc Comtois
In a story by Howard Fineman, Mitch McConnell casts the current political "divisiveness" in its proper historical context:
"It's naive to assume there would be one collection of views widely held by everyone," he said. "I'm amazed at all this hand-wringing over the level of discourse and partisanship. It leads me to believe nobody has read any history. The level of divisiveness now is really quite mild when it's compared with numerous periods in our history."
Indeed, our history is replete with political brawls that would appear unseemly to those with more milder political sensibilities. The accusation Thomas Jefferson had a liaison with a slave was first brought up during his presidential campaign. Andrew Jackson was accused of bigamy because his wife had never technically divorced from her first husband before marrying Ol' Hickory. Of course, the greatest period of political divisiveness was the period leading up to the Civil War. How soon we forget. However, according to Democrat Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, "It may not actually be worse but TV can make it feel worse." He has a point.

In this instantaneous mass media age, most any story can be picked up by television, radio or the internet and spread worldwide within a matter of minutes. As such, upon first hearing an initial report of some event, it is human nature to take a position on that event, usually based upon an ideological worldview. It is also human nature that, once we have formed an opinion, we change our minds only when the evidence arrayed against our original position is well nigh overwhelming. We Americans like to stick to our guns. As such, our unprecedented near-instantaneous access to mountains of information has increased and amplified the ideological polarization in our country. However, despite the heated rhetoric generated by those on the poles, there is a mass of people, the majority in fact, who are in the political "cool middle" and are not caught up in the ideology wars. They are the self-described "moderates," voters who ostensibly desire nothing more than "bipartisanship." They are the same people who claim to be political "independents" often stating, not disingenuously, that they "like to look at both sides and make up their own mind." If this is indeed so, it is incumbent upon the ideologues, positively defined, to plea their cases to this mass of undecideds every election cycle.

In the 2004 Presidential election, Rhode Island voters who described themselves as political "independents" accounted for 26% of the vote, and split 48/49 for Bush/Kerry. (source). (Registered Republicans and Democrats were evenly divided at 37% and split 93/6 and 11/89, respectively for Bush/Kerry). This would seem to indicate that neither Republican nor Democrats were able to persuade a statistically significant majority of Independents. However, more useful statistics are found in the ideological breakdown of the Rhode Island electorate (source). In Democrat-dominated Rhode Island, only 21% of voters identify themselves as Liberal, while 34% identify themselves as Conservative. (It is safe to assume that mose Liberals are Democrats and most Conservatives are Republicans, though I'm sure there is some party/ideology cross-pollinization). Putting these two polar groups aside, leaves the largest voting group in Rhode Island, those who call themselves "Moderate." In Rhode Island, they comprise 45% of the electorate and broke 54/45 for Kerry.

Generally speaking, it is accepted that a moderate is liberal on social issues, conservative on fiscal, and all over the map on international issues, though they usually are enamored with the hazy concept of "diplomacy" (witness our own Senator Lincoln Chafee). It is also a safe assumption that most moderates are also those who most often call for bipartisanship. According to Senator McConnell, now that Republicans dominate Washington, the definition of bipartisanship is about to change:
For decades... "bipartisan" meant only a "center-left" coalition of Democrats and a smattering of Republicans. "The key now...will be whether there are a group of Democrats willing to join with most Republicans in a coalition of the center-right."
In Rhode Island, we have Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, who is properly viewed by his Republican counterparts as essentially a moderate Democrat. In this, I suspect Senator Chafee reflects the ideological make-up of his own constituency: Moderates who can be described as "center-left." For most, Senator Chafee and his late father John Chafee are probably the only Republicans for whom they've ever voted. As such, I don't foresee such a change as predicted by McConnell in Rhode Island. Indeed, the field of Rhode Island moderates may not be the most fertile for planting conservative ideas. I do believe that there are moderates who are really conservatives, they just don't think of themselves as such. It is much more pleasant to view oneself as a "moderate" person, after all.

In reality, many, if not most, Rhode Island Democrats and Independents are traditional FDR/JFK Democrats who simply can't bring themselves to vote Republican. Unfortunately, this means they vote in a way disconnected from their own beliefs, as they assign their traditional Democrat ideals onto today's Democrats who are far more liberal than they. We few conservatives in Rhode Island are trying to convince the average Rhode Islander that their traditional beliefs are, for the most part, not reflective of those held by the 21st century Democrat party. It is a difficult task, especially when they still believe the notion that Republicans, and conservatives by extension, are intolerant, beholden to the wealthy, and don't care about "the little guy." Despite this pre-existing condition, however, there is evidence that conservative arguments may be taking hold.

According to the same exit polls cited above, as a percent of the electorate, those describing themselves as Conservatives rose 3% from the Presidential election of 2000, and those describing themselves as Moderate rose 1%. Self-described Liberals remained unchanged. My guess is that the 1% rise in Moderates is directly attributable to Liberals re-defining themselves as Moderates. As for the 3% rise in Conservatives, perhaps minds are being changed. It could be that the Independent Man atop our State House, to whom so many Rhode Islanders point a representative of their own views, may be glancing to his right. Perhaps, just perhaps, he sees the Anchor beginning to Rise on the Rhode Island ship of state. Perhaps there is "Hope" after all.