Winning politicians and parties calculate and implement election strategies not for a “center” of the political spectrum, but across as broad an ideological base as necessary to gather sufficent votes to win. The “center” we describe isn’t in itself ideological, in fact its place isn’t fixed and it’s not necessarily even in the middle (median). The political center today is not the same place it was in 1968 which is not the same place it was in 1868 nor will be in 2068.
The political center is an equilibrium along a vertical line from right to left. The quality of this line as well as its quantity, or “weight,” is not predetermined, it shifts in reaction to movement across the breadth of the electorate. The “center” changes in reaction to social developments, changes in financial/material conditions, and, yes, in response to political movements that strike a large enough chord within society to impact and propel movement along the spectrum. Indeed, this is one reason such phenomena are known as “movements.” If it doesn’t move, it’s not a movement.
The calculation that parties make to determine the optimal point along this line doesn’t in itself determine the outcome of an election. The people, the forces represented along this societal equilibrium, still decide. And the “center” as truly defined in a fixed sense isn’t necessarily where the largest number of voters reside. When a shift occurs the forces re-align in relationship to each other and the so-called center, or the optimal point of mass, shifts too.
When a movement or a party calculates purposefully farther to one side of the equilibrium away from the optimal point it will be understood by many that they are not trying to win an election. The goal of such an effort is to change the relationships along the spectrum, to tilt the optimal point of mass towards the side to which the party purposely aims. Recent examples can be seen in the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement.
Occupy never intended to be an electoral movement but it made a distinct political impact through large scale movement activism, the resulting worldwide publicity and most importantly through giving a voice for an introduction of ideas, words and concepts that pierced the consciousness of the public, tilted the optimal mass to the left (however slightly) and helped to change the political equilibrium. The effect of the Occupy movement is positive. Politically, it did not have a direct impact but Occupy changed the relationships among the electorate in ways which surely helped move the 2012 electorate to the left.
The Tea Party movement accomplished a similar social effect farther right of the optimal voting mass but crucially it became coopted by the rightwing of the GOP aiming also for electoral achievement. In regions where the Tea party calculations found the “center”, such as Texas and the Southern states, the effect has been swiftly successful. Nationally, where the “center” tends to be farther left, one can see that the political calculation of the tea parties was not acceptable to the voters, many would say catastrophically so for the GOP.
Ultimately a political party in a representative democracy must follow the people. electoral politics are a trailing indicator. Movements, masses of people essentially, move the relationships along the ideological spectrum, change the equilibrium, while politicians are left to figure this out and seek the optimal mass points in the calculations of their election campaigns.
Obvious examples of politics catching up with the people from last week’s election are immigration, gay marriage and legal weed. All of these issues that brought people out to vote resulted from movements that changed the political balance, as sufficient numbers voted for the representatives they believed to be most closely tied to these issues. Two of these issues were born of ballot initiatives and one was energised by a movement in reaction to the arch-conservative anti-immigration movement, which changed the political calculation in the red states for a time in its favour but ultimately produced a successfully energised counter-movement that had a significant impact on the national election.
Where political parties seek to move the equilibrium themselves rather than adapt to the mood of the people and artificially stimulate rather than seek to find the optimal mass along the shifting spectrum with which to attach themselves, they will not find long term success. More likely, they will be accused of demagoguery sooner or later under these circumstances, and become discredited.
The US leftwing is at a crossroads. It is small by historical standards but the coalition that built Obama’s re-election, not Obama himself or the DLC establishment is the force on which leftist optimism for the future can be built and sustained. The Occupy movement had an impact but not a directly electoral one. A leftwing political party outside the mainstream has not had an impact since 1968, when McCarthy’s nascent movement was already co-opted within the Democratic Party. Further, the experience of a rightwing movement that went electoral, the tea party movement is a cautionary tale, showing as it has very mixed results: winning local and state elections where social conditions favour their campaign calculations, but failing on a national level and inarguably discrediting the conservative movement in the process.
What all this suggests is the very real “needs” potential for leftwing electoral politics to become immediately focused on a few targeted state and local races in regions where the optimal mass of voters is sufficiently on the left to compete meaningfully. Yet, even this process probably still requires more mass political engagement to shift the “center” far enough leftward to win elections beyond the local level. A more focused Occupy-type movement, for instance, or something that will resonate locally, such as the pro-immigration recall election in Arizona, an active, ongoing presence by the left with national resources streaming in from outside can trigger an effective force in a local venue from which a sustained political voice can resonate across the electoral spectrum.
By first building into one or more localities successfully progressives can grow a platform from which to build a political party that can win elections, build a base locally and regionally before attempting to move the “center” of the political equilibrium farther leftward on a national basis.