The “Nolan Chart”

We live in polarized times here in the United States.

The Democratic Party his shifted far to the ‘left,’ espousing positions that only a few years ago would have been viewed as radically socialist. Today’s mainline Democrats are rabidly pro-abortion, rabidly pro-redistributionist, rabidly anti-business, and rabidly anti-religious. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has shifted to the right, embracing a righteous hard-line against abortion, a semi-nationalist position in favor of harsh immigration restrictions, and a deep aversion to any kind of compromise on its principles.

All of this is a good thing (believe it or not).

For a long time, the two major U.S. political parties had much in common. Both supported free trade, which meant that Americans who opposed free trade were unrepresented. Both supported some variant of a “safe, legal, and rare” view of abortion, which allowed leeway for small-but-notable bands of “pro-choice” Republicans and “pro-life” Democrats. Both took fairly interventionist positions on foreign policy, leaving “isolationist” Americans unrepresented. There were disagreements between the parties—some real and some theoretical—but on the whole, both operated in the same middle slice of American politics.

In this dynamic, the fervent right- and left-wingers found themselves largely unrepresented in the U.S. political duopoly. So they revolted. On the left, many Democratic Party voters abandoned the ordained successor of President Barack Obama (D)—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D)—in favor of a self-proclaimed independent democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Clinton only emerged victorious because of the Democratic Party’s internal corruption and its bizarre, un-democratic nomination process. And on the right, sixteen standard-issue Republicans lost a primary campaign against a center-left demagogue who adopted a sort of neo-nationalism and gave lip-service to some hard-right talking points.

But what of the people in the middle? What of the people who, for nearly twenty years, enjoyed a position of power in American politics? What of the people who voted for President George H.W. Bush (R), President Bill Clinton (D), President George W. Bush (R), and President Barack Obama (D)? For all this time, the hard-left and hard-right had no real standard-bearer on the national level. Centrists ruled the day. Even Obama, who did indeed govern the executive branch as a leftist, only won the 2008 election because he campaigned as a unifying centrist . . . defeating Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who actually was (and still is) a real centrist.

So for decades we have had vicious political battles over . . . well, mostly nothing. Meanwhile, hard-core conservatives and hard-core liberals have whined about how even their own party’s presidents had failed them. Today, however, the partisans (or at least those who cater to them) have seized control of the political world. Now it is the centrists who must go mostly unrepresented in our political landscape.

As long as I have been paying attention to politics, it has been clear to me that American voters break roughly into thirds. About one-third of them are fairly far off to the left. About one-third are fairly far off to the right. And about one-third fall somewhere near the middle, though roughly half of these centrists will lean to the left and the other half will lean to the right. For decades, most of our major party presidential candidates have been somewhere in that middle-third. The left-wing third of the electorate voted for the moderate who was closest to them, and the right-wing third voted for the one closest to them . . . but neither set really felt like they were being represented by “their” party.

This dynamic has now decisively changed. It is now the right-wing partisans who rule the Republican Party (even though they have, inexplicably, chosen a center-left, populist blowhard as their standard bearer). And on the left, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) lost her campaign for president, and more reliably left-wing politicos seem to be ascendant in her once center-left party. The handful of centrists who remain in the U.S. Congress are being pushed out or marginalized by their parties in retribution for the decades when the “radical” wings were themselves marginalized.

Some think that the radicalization of the Republican and Democratic parties is a bad thing, but it is not. Why should the central third of the American electorate have both parties in their corner, while the two-thirds of the electorate at the outside of the spectrum go unrepresented? The dynamic today, where the fringes are better represented but the centrists are less so, is still imperfect. But it is less imperfect than it was before. Today, a larger portion of the electorate feels like they have real representation in our government.

Rather than asking the two parties to moderate, and to return to a dynamic where two-thirds of Americans felt ignored, we should accept our polarized reality and create a new “third party” to represent the middle third. This would be the party of politicos like the aforementioned Senator McCain, of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), of former Senator (and former Democratic vice presidential nominee) Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and of Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI 2nd), just to name a few well-known examples. It would be a whole party made up of the the types of politicians that hard-core right-wingers call RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) joined together in a coalition with the kinds of Democrats who call(ed) themselves the Blue Dogs.

What might this party stand for? Well, the obvious answer would be “compromise” and “moderation,” but we could be a bit more concrete than that if we wanted to. There is room in our political system for shades of gray . . . for people who think that abortion should be legal in the first trimester, but not after . . . for people who think that government regulation of the economy is permissible, but should be used sparingly . . . for people who think that government has a major role in improving the American healthcare system, but shouldn’t nationalize it. Do people with these views have any party that represents them? Today, they do not. You must be completely opposed to abortion, or completely supportive of it. You must be a full-blown socialist interventionist, or oppose all economic regulation by the government. You must support a wholly free-market healthcare system, or a wholly socialist single-payer system. There are lots of people somewhere on the spectrum inbetween these black and white positions.

I’m not saying I would join this party, that I would agree with its platform, or that I would vote for it (although it is certainly possible that I would in some elections). I would still probably land somewhere on the ‘conservatarian’ spectrum between the Republicans and the Libertarians. But, whether I would join it or not, I am convinced that it would serve a useful and important role in our political system. It would be better if each of the three major factions of American politics had an organized political party that represented them. Let the Democrats represent the hard-left, let the Republicans represent the hard-right, and let this new party—let’s call it the Unity Party—represent the middle-third.

Additionally, this sort of party—if it had enough money and political prestige behind it—could really shake up the political duopoly and reduce the power of political parties across the board. By breaking the stranglehold that Republicans and Democrats have imposed on the system, there would be more opportunities for other, smaller parties like the Libertarians and the Greens. And by making it less likely that any single party will have an outright majority in Congress, it would also make it more difficult for any major legislation to pass without widespread public support.

Remember, Gridlock is Good. Gridlock is what the founders wanted. A viable third party that represents the middle-third of American voters would introduce new political difficulties, but it would also introduce new opportunities. More importantly, it would help ensure that our legislative bodies better reflect (though still imperfectly) the complete spectrum of American political viewpoints. If we really believe in representative democracy, then that is exactly what we should want.