The Vital Center: Learning from the Extremes

Gun Rights

How can rising politicians with a solutions-oriented approach prosper in our polarized party politics? What kind of political entrepreneurship is needed to “win the middle,” assemble big tents and broad coalitions, and build the factional muscle necessary to create candidates for local and state office who are independent of the national party brand?

While the polarization and hyperpartisanship gripping American politics pit Republicans against Democrats, a nasty byproduct is the strangling of moderate, pragmatic political leaders within their own parties, through a dense ecosystem of groups such as PACs and nonprofits that enforce policy purity while being unaccountable to voters. The formal apparatuses of the parties—the entities known as “the Democratic Party” and “the Republican Party,” which are allegedly responsible for organizing winning coalitions—exert little influence. Power has increasingly been ceded to “the groups,” which have gobbled up much of the time, money, and emotional energy of voters, political “hobbyists,” and, in some cases, major decision-makers in party leadership. These resources are then often directed against pragmatists within their own parties, narrowing the path to success for those who lack a community to support them across the electoral, social, communications, and policy functions required for political leadership.

On the left, the progressive feedback loop across these dimensions—powered by professional policy advocates, small-dollar donors, social media mavens, and superstar politicians—is fueled by picking policy fights with the center to strengthen the progressive ecosystem. In 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed up the supposed weakness of pragmatists to a cheering crowd at South by Southwest: “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh.’” In 2020, the prominent faction leader declared that Democrats were “too big of a tent.” The far right engages in similar tactics: The current iteration of the Freedom Caucus has achieved little in substantive policy change, but it is content to pick theatrical fights that bring in small-donor contributions rather than passing conservative policy goals. (Paradoxically, the caucus may well have shifted policy to the left in aggregate).

Fortunately, into this tent-shrinking breach have stepped partisan centrist political entrepreneurs whose attitude toward politics is more welcoming. And, importantly, their approach can be described as anything but “meh.”

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They range from federal elected officials winning in red districts to nonprofit founders in deep blue cities. Headlining this trend is the 2023 relaunch of the famously centrist Blue Dog Coalition, led by a trio of co-chairs who are outliers in both electoral politics—each won over large chunks of Trump voters in their districts amid Democratic losses in 2022—and in policy, where millennial Democratic Representatives Jared Golden of Maine and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington have voted apart from their colleagues on issues that matter to their rural districts. This new dynamism extends beyond political leaders to entrepreneurs in policy and advocacy, like the pro-growth and pro-safety groups in Democratic cities. Organizations like GrowSF in San Francisco have notched high-profile victories against progressive excesses in famously blue cities.

In a world of weak parties and strong partisanship driven by ideological—and unaccountable—groups, how do we empower a pragmatic faction to support the next generation of big-tent party-builders? In this essay, we’ll explore the current reality, and what a new crop of pragmatic leaders can learn from the ascendant leftist faction that has gained power far beyond its membership over the past decade.

The progressive left has demonstrated the structure of a modern political faction, building a self-sustaining ecosystem that cultivates outward momentum and power by integrating vertically (local-state-national), horizontally (across issues), and tactically (across electoral politics, policy, networking, and media).

Pragmatic political leaders face a steeper climb. Unlike on the extremes, those in the middle lack large, permanent networks or natural ideological coherence. And while becoming party-builders, they also face competition from anti-partisan and bipartisan efforts that claw away scarce resources.

These factors are driving polarization, but outliers are proving the opportunity. A void has opened in America’s political center. Filling it can be a salve.

The Center-Left at a Crossroads

The factional center-left is at a crossroads. Either allow the left to determine the terrain—“abolish ICE,” “defund the police,” “Green New Deal”—or define the terms of debate themselves. Lawmakers like Representative Golden have carved out a unique approach to legislating that fits their districts, and more policymakers should embrace a maverick status in partnership with peers. Crafting an agenda that relies on the strength of the median voter in a purple district can help free lawmakers from the threat of a primary—Golden and Gluesenkamp Perez have not faced Democratic primary challengers since winning their seats, despite the occasional wrath of the online crowd. It also makes the member what we like to call a party-maker (someone who creates an independent brand by taking positions that work for their district and advance a pragmatic faction, not only their party), not a party-taker (someone who embraces the agenda of ideological groups and then must explain these positions to their voters).

The past several years have produced new pragmatic center-left voices. Democratic Representative Mary Sattler Peltola of Alaska, the first Alaska Native member of Congress, bested Sarah Palin on a platform of being pro-choice, “pro-fish,” and anti-extreme. Peltola broke from the left to support the Willow project, a domestic drilling venture in Alaska, and has established a pro-gun record that reflects her state’s values.

In Maine, Golden has charted his own version of center-left policymaking. Much like Peltola, he has supported his state’s local seafood industry, but he also broke with his party on the size of the coronavirus stimulus and worked to make the Inflation Reduction Act more aggressively anti-deficit spending.

In Washington, Gluesenkamp Perez, a small business owner and mother, defeated extremist Joe Kent. While she’s strongly pro-choice, she has bucked progressive activists on positions adopted by most Democrats (like student debt cancellation), which has provided authentic, high-profile contrasts to an unpopular party brand. Republican Lauren Boebert did not choose of her own volition to leave her Colorado district for another ruby-red district this election cycle, nor was she excised by the threat of the progressive left. Instead, she is moving because a moderate Democrat, Adam Frisch, gave her the race of her life in 2022 by running perhaps the most moderate campaign of that cycle, touting his credentials as a “conservative businessman” who wanted “safe and secure borders” and supported both the Second Amendment and commonsense gun reform.

As party-builders, these moderates are not only fighting for their own reelection but also expanding the big tent of their party in a coherent manner. This cycle, the Blue Dogs have endorsed additional energetic center-left candidates, ensuring that Democrats run viable, well-funded candidates in center-right districts that are too often left for dead. This includes Frisch, and two others in Trump country. In Wisconsin’s 3rd district, Rebecca Cooke is taking on extremist January 6 insurrectionist Derrick Van Orden. Cooke, the daughter of a dairy farmer and currently working as a waitress three nights a week, is campaigning on commonsense pragmatism. In California’s 41st, Will Rollins is running in what analysts say is the one of the closest races of the cycle by touting his Republican grandparents and his time in the Schwarzenegger administration to appeal to cross-pressured Republican voters. And these Blue Dog-endorsed candidates are not the only moderates working to broaden the Democratic tent: Just look at Pennsylvania’s 10th, where Janelle Stelson, a former Republican who served her community as a journalist for nearly 40 years, is taking on MAGA incumbent and former Freedom Caucus chair Scott Perry.

Candidates’ need to differentiate themselves in these red districts has organically uncovered opportunity, in a classic case of necessity breeding invention—especially in rural districts. And this opening has the academic stamp of approval: As political scientists Steven Teles and Robert Saldin write in National Affairs, “In places where their respective national parties are weak, these moderate factions will have an opportunity to establish a power base for intra-party conflict.”

The Struggles of the Modern Centrist

These developments are exciting, but we should not diminish the uphill battle facing pragmatists who do not pass the policy purity tests favored by “the groups.” While progressives in safe seats need to win only one election (their first primary), centrists are constantly at risk of losing because their districts are more competitive. As Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall has shown, the increasingly partisan nature of American politics has caused fewer and fewer moderate people to run for office. We need more “factional moderates”: lawmakers who are ideologically passionate about centrist governance.

In our work recruiting and supporting moderates in districts that the parties overlook, we talk with centrist candidates every day, and their laments are all the same. Moderates struggle to plug into a small-donor ecosystem that is driven by attempts to pull in eyeballs with extreme rhetoric and policies that will ultimately alienate potential voters. The groups that drive media narratives and national donor money push for tough votes—often messaging votes that jeopardize moderates’ reelection chances.

In blue areas, moderates face a constant threat of primaries from the local progressive infrastructure, while in red regions, the lack of competition means that many Democrats, relegated to what feels to them like permanent minority status, simply seek media and messaging opportunities to prepare themselves for future higher office.

Elites Polarize, Voters Depolarize

To know how to move forward, we must first understand how we got here. What is the origin of strong partisanship and weak parties? As political scientist Sam Rosenfeld explains in The Polarizers, our current polarization is the product of an intentional strategy—not from radical extremists, but from well-intentioned advocates and academics in postwar America. These activists and political scientists argued that the lack of ideologically coherent parties—the reality of the time, with many conservative Southern Democrats and a number of Northern Republican liberals—was a failure of democracy. Voters might give the Democrats a national majority, but this would only empower the Southern Democrats, who had meaningfully different preferences. At the time, Gallup frequently polled voters on the issue, and it consistently found that they were not interested in having ideologically distinct parties. When Gallup polled Americans in 1947 on whether they wanted a liberal party and a conservative party, only 13 percent of voters endorsed the idea.

Over time, activists on both the left and right successfully shaped the parties into ideologically coherent structures. Southern Democrats slowly became Republicans, and the GOP coalesced around conservative ideas. The Democratic Party also became more ideologically consistent, though its more diverse coalition caused its big tent to remain slightly less ideological, as political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins have shown (and any attendee of a Democratic National Convention can attest). Ideological liberals have long represented a smaller share of the electorate than conservatives, making a viable liberal-dominated party impossible. The Democratic Party includes a wide range of moderates (including the large bloc of Black and Hispanic moderates) and conservatives, which has prevented ideological homogenization.

As the parties became more ideologically coherent, the merchants of policy purity gained power. Unlike past factional leaders, they did not wield influence through government patronage, but rather through ideas and, increasingly, through outside groups like nonprofits and PACs. These leaders and their organizations shaped the ideological battlefield. Groups like the Moral Majority and the religious right, the environmental movement, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and many others sought to define the parties’ missions.

This unmooring from the demands of the traditional party bosses came with an unintended downside: Those wielding power within the parties have less interest in winning long-term electoral power. For autonomous, often issues-focused groups, winning elections can be tangential to the real lifeblood of nonprofits, which is winning over donors and volunteers. In fact, groups often find themselves in the most fecund fundraising environment when their party is out of power. For factions on the edges of each party, the goal is not exclusively to help the party win, but rather to ensure that the factional agenda will be passed when the party eventually does win—or at least that their patrons of time and treasure believe that to be so.

The factional actors who dismiss electoral success are being logical, in a way: Once a party gains power, the dominant faction can determine the agenda, even if the party is in no position to enact it. Thus, groups like the Sunrise Movement prioritize their clout within the Democratic Party, even if their litmus tests might cost Democrats elections. Similarly, the pro-life movement prioritizes beating moderate Republicans, even if those members are necessary for Republicans to win and hold power.

Consider this quote from a prominent faction leader within the progressive movement: “A smaller but more progressive Democratic Caucus would be a more functional and healthy and coherent caucus.” This view has been echoed by conservative activists, who do not prioritize the electoral fortunes of their aligned party either.

We are in the age of faction, and centrists must learn from the tactics of the factionalists of the left and right. However, centrists bear one burden that extremists do not: They refuse to sacrifice the electoral interests of the party. The good news is that a pragmatic agenda is much more aligned with political victory. To beat the existing factionalists, centrists must understand how factions are structured—and grow factions of their own.

How to Build a Faction

We find that factions have three common structures. They are vertically integrated (state and local chapters feed national power-building); they are horizontally integrated (activists work across issues and transition across organizations); and they are tactically integrated (often sharing policy shops, communications firms, lobbyists, electoral strategies, and fundraising consultants).

Vertical Integration

Factionalists outside of elected office utilize local, state, and federal power to create influential networks to sway lawmakers. Lawmakers are particularly sensitive to actors they perceive as local to their districts, and factional activists take advantage of that. On the right, groups like the NRA have used chapter level models to get involved in high-profile primaries. On the left, labor unions have deployed local networks of unionized public workers to pressure policymakers.

Most lawmakers begin their careers in local office. Factionalists begin building relationships early, when these lawmakers are in the state legislature, and the relationships pay off when they enter Congress.

Horizontal Integration

Factionalists also organize across issues. It’s not odd to see a climate group proffering opinions on abortion rights or Israel. In fact, it is often seen as gauche by progressive activists if a group does not put out a sympathetic statement every time there is a development in a related issue advocacy space. This horizontal integration is another source of power and ideological discipline, and factions grow stronger by regularly jumping on media moments that garner coverage for their issues. As Elizabeth Warren said in a 2017 speech: “That’s the thing about these fights: Win or lose, when we fight for what is fair, when we fight in a way that engages our passion, when we fight with commitment and drive, then our power isn’t a battery that gets drained. Our power is a muscle that gets stronger every time we use it.”

Tactical Integration

Finally, factionalists are tactically integrated, developing tactics and tools that then spread rapidly across the ecosystem. They share consultants who work only with factional interests, creating a circular infrastructure of resources that helps ideas and strategies emerge and germinate within the movement.

Progressives have developed unique technology (for instance, “Reach,” a tool to organize door-knocking) and resources (media-focused polling firms like Data For Progress), and they have pioneered strategies (small-donor fundraising) that eventually became mainstream. It’s not uncommon for progressive staffers to jump from one left-wing organization to the next, bringing with them tactical and strategic advice.

Party-Makers or Party-Takers

The center-left has a tool that the progressive factionalists do not: the ability to contest and win swing districts, even those deemed by race raters to be outside of the battlefield. Consider Adam Frisch and Will Rollins. Both ran in 2022 for seats that were deemed to be “safe” Republican and uncontestable. But both candidates ran campaigns that rejected the factionalist theory and instead sought to welcome moderate Republicans and independents into the Democratic Party. They did not try to “mobilize” a nonexistent base, but rather sought to win the voters who were up for grabs in the middle. What happened? Frisch came within 600 votes of beating Boebert, eventually forcing her to move across the state and run in a different district, and Rollins made California’s 41st one of the top Democratic pick-up opportunities of 2024. Both, according to data scientist David Shor, were among the strongest Democratic overperformers of the 2022 election cycle.

The current infancy of the centrist partisan faction leaves room for center-left political entrepreneurship, and we are seeing signs of life. Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) activism across the country has seen technocrats using the tactics previously reserved for far-left and far-right extremists to push economically sound policy. The Center for New Liberalism has adopted the local chapter model of the left to build community for the center-left across the country. While technology in the late 2010s favored the Twitter-ready retorts of extremists, the return of blogging through the Substack boom has proved to be a great opportunity for center-left analysts and activists to build audiences. And in North Carolina, one of the most fiercely partisan states in the country, the volunteer-led organization Carolina Forward is emphasizing values and pragmatism across a full range of tactics, including polling, voter contact, policy analysis, and a consistent newsletter.

We need these factional moderates because many elements of centrist governance are not vehicles for building long-term power. They are not vertically, horizontally, or tactically integrated. There is no moderate community or ecosystem. To succeed, we need to build out these institutions and the connective tissue that transforms them into networks.

From the postwar era to today, ideological rigidity has been imposed by elites over the objections of voters. The resulting political polarization, driven by this extreme ideological coherence, has wounded the country. But energetic pragmatists are showing the workout regime that can bring American civic life back to health: practicing democracy by engaging voters in the middle, playing to win, and building a team to share in victories together.

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