Last week, I got another email accusing me of being a centrist hack. The writer said, “You can talk a fairly progressive game at times but always seem to fall back on this belief that all the voters are in the center. This nation is so polarized that there’s nothing in the center but hack politicians.” I get letters with a similar sentiment fairly frequently.
I don’t believe that all voters are in the center, but I do believe that the swing voters who determine elections are. I also don’t believe that the center in a state like West Virginia is at the same place as the center in a place like North Carolina or a place like California. And I believe that if politicians, from either the left or the right, alienate those voters, they can’t win in an evenly divided state like ours.
In our hyper-partisan world, swing voters have shrunk from about 25% of the electorate in the 1990s to between 5% and 10% today. And while keeping the partisans engaged is crucial, politicians can’t afford to lose those in the middle when our elections are regularly decided by one percent or less. While 5%-10% seems small, in a state our size, that’s between 250,000 and 500,000 voters. In 2016, Roy Cooper won by about 10,000 votes and in 2020, Josh Stein won by just over 13,000 votes.
Many of those swing voters live in suburbia. They are largely middle class but generally not well informed. They don’t think too deeply about current events and they barely hear the political messaging that so many of us feel overwhelming. They are largely self-interested, but they are not selfish. Many are taking kids to sports and possibly coaching them. They want what’s best for them and their family. They like their taxes low but will pay for good schools, good roads, and safe neighborhoods. They want access to secure, stable jobs and the promise their kids can have the same.
Many voted for Barack Obama at least once and they are not racists, but they also are not anti-racists. They don’t think enough about the history of racism in this country or its impact on the larger African American community to take that stand. They didn’t see the riots that followed the George Floyd protests as expressions of hopelessness and frustration. They saw them as a threat to their security. Most probably don’t support affirmative action type programs, but they also don’t think much about them unless they’re brought to their attention. Few would support reparations for African Americans, even if they might support programs that help improve Black neighborhoods, HBCUs, and create opportunities for underprivileged Black kids.
On other social issues, they generally fall in the middle. Most are probably moderately pro-choice. They do not want abortion rights severely curtailed, but they probably don’t want their 16-year old getting one without them knowing it. Many, if not most, own guns for protection and, while they might support common sense gun measures, they don’t want their nine millimeters taken away. They’ve come a long way on LGBT issues in a short amount of time. They may have supported Amendment One in 2014, but they now realize that gay people marrying has little impact on their lives so they really don’t care anymore. Still, many probably have problems with gender issues if for no other reason than they don’t really understand what’s happening.
To win elections in North Carolina, Democrats need to win these voters. Since they aren’t paying much attention, only narrow messages get through. They can be easily misled so Democrats need to make sure that they are leading with issues important to them—things like schools, jobs, and the economy. Leading with social or racial concerns risks highlighting easily distorted issues that divide the voters Democrats need to consolidate.
But it’s not just swing voters. The largest reliable bloc of Democratic voters in North Carolina, African Americans, is more diverse in their ideology than people realize. They are not homogenous and rural African American voters are far more conservative than their urban counterparts. They are more religious and more likely to lean toward social conservatism. Look no further than the Black legislators who represent places like Scotland and Robeson Counties for proof. They are the most conservative members of the Democratic caucuses and their views reflect those of the people they represent. Democrats can’t afford to alienate these folks if they hope to have statewide victories.
As for me personally, I’m a raging liberal. If I were king, I would implement single-payer health care. I would offer reparations to the descendants of slaves. I would raise taxes substantially on the richest Americans. I would encourage and empower labor unions. I would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and offer family medical leave to everyone, including six weeks of parental leave to welcome and adjust to newborn babies. I would reduce class size to no more than 15 students and pay teachers far better than they are paid today. I would ban assault weapons and high capacity clips except for those who got strict permits and require training for anyone who wanted a concealed-carry permit. I would invest heavily in infrastructure, better connecting rural and disadvantaged communities to centers of commerce. I would make abortion, at least through the first trimester, an inalienable right and prevent government from interfering with decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor. I would make access to the polls a universal right and prevent any attempts to limit the franchise. There’s more I would do, but you get the drift.
But I’m not king. I’m a political hack and I’m more interested in winning elections than pushing through my lefty political agenda. More than half the battle is keeping the bastards out, not passing progressive legislation. I don’t believe there’s an army of people just waiting to go to the polls as soon as Democrats enact a bunch of laws that promote liberal ideals. In fact, I believe there are more people who will go to the polls to prevent that agenda than support it. That’s what 2020 taught me.
So, yeah, I guess I’m a centrist hack because I want to win elections in North Carolina. Coming in second has not worked out very well for me and my agenda. Politically, the last decade has sucked. I don’t give a damn about making statements and I could not care less about the size of the rallies in Raleigh or Washington. They haven’t turned into any sort electoral victories.
Politics is no longer the art of compromise and has become a zero sum game. I would take a Joe Manchin over whatever Republican would replace him any day, regardless of how much I disagree with him right now. I pine for the days when Heath Shuler was angering liberals in Asheville and people wondered why Mike McIntyre was still a Democrat. And I yearn for the days of the Big Tent Democratic Party that had room for pro-life and pro-gun Democrats because, back then, a woman’s right to choose was not imperiled and we had a ban on assault weapons.
We’ve reduced our politics to “you’re either with me or against me” and the people who make up this country are far more complicated than that. I support a more nuanced party led by a broader, more inclusive message. I want to see the interest groups and their Super PACs that too often drive our national narrative forced to take a back seat. They’ve done more to divide the country and cost Democrats elections than they have to successfully promote their agendas. And while I realize politics is more complex than just that, I want leaders who understand that at this time in history, protecting our democracy is more important than pushing through a legislative agenda, because if we lose our democracy, nothing else really matters.