The year is nearly over and the two massive spending packages pushed by the White House are still languishing in Congress. It would be easy to blame Republicans here, but I would remind you that Democrats hold majorities—albeit razor-thin—in both chambers. The larger bill which also includes the fiscal year 2022 budget has been trimmed from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion largely to satisfy two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The second bill—the infrastructure bill—currently stands at $1.2 trillion, down from over $2 trillion earlier this year. Progressive and moderate factions among the House Democrats are still pushing back over different aspects of the infrastructure bill and the final vote continues to be pushed down the road.
The two Senate moderates, Manchin and Sinema, are getting the most press over this wrangling. The Beltway press points out they are ripe for primary challenges by bucking their party leadership. We saw this in New Mexico in the 2020 primaries as five moderate Democrats (or as we call them here, “pro-business”…seriously, what is the logic behind supporting the anti-business candidate in a state with an economy as lousy as ours, I ask you?) in the Legislature were taken out by progressive challengers.
Gallup polls at the beginning of the year show that moderates are the fastest-shrinking group in the U.S. across the political spectrum as our population grows more politically polarized. However, even against our ever-shriller political dialogue, fully 35% of Americans consider themselves moderate, compared with 36% calling themselves conservative and 25% calling themselves liberal.
Liberals are the fastest-growing political group in the country right now, and conservatives are maintaining their numbers. (In 1992, the breakdown was 43% moderate, 36% conservative and 17% liberal.) As someone who places herself on the center-right spot on the political spectrum, I might attribute this to the devolution of conservative policy stance over the last 30 years.
GOP platform issues have moved away from topics of national importance like foreign policy and the economy and instead focus on emotional ones like the 2nd Amendment and abortion. It’s a turn-off for a lifetime conservative like me and for true moderates, I can see this trend sending them to the left.
What’s interesting is that while moderates make up a third of the American population, they are only tiny factions in each of the Congressional caucuses. You can thank our primary election system for that. Primary elections where independent voters are unable to participate naturally favor the more right- or left-leaning candidates in their respective Republican or Democratic contests. The primary campaigns are structured that way—not who can win the general election, but who is the most orthodox true believer of partisan party values.
The electorate is left with two hyper-partisan candidates who attempt to move to the middle to duke it out for the general election, often by running attack ads and avoiding actual policy stances. So the moderate one-third of voters find themselves voting for the least-bad candidate, or worse, not voting at all.
But, in a few notable cases—Manchin, Sinema, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and several others—moderates have broken through. And they are the ones who are watched. Because they buck the partisan rhetoric. They seem more independent. That makes news. In the case of Manchin and Sinema, they have cut the Build Back Better cash dump nearly in half.
In a system where consolidation of partisan power seems paramount over sound policymaking (or even any policymaking), moderates in their shrinking numbers serve as a Greek chorus reminding the caucus leadership that a party label doesn’t mean universal buy-in and lockstep acquiescence. We should want more voices in this chorus.