The Revenge of the Median Voter Theorem

Over at National Review, Henry Olsen has an odd essay. It’s all about moderate Republicans, otherwise known as RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only:

Movement types have long been enraged by RINOs’ cool attitude toward tax cutting and social conservatism and their willingness to cooperate with, and occasionally vote for, Democrats. Hunting RINO officeholders during primary season has been the Club for Growth’s primary mission for years, and together with activist muscle, the group has successfully pushed the party to the right.

It turns out, however, that poaching RINO legislators is not enough to drive RINOs to extinction….Millions of voters [in suburbia] were in fact RINOs too, and picking off their representatives did not do a thing to change their minds about the issues. They like “go slow” Republicanism and do not believe that things in America are bad enough on any level to warrant radical, significant change.

….Tuesday, however, is going to be the RINOs’ revenge.

It goes on in this vein for a while, and the odd thing is not that Olsen is wrong. He’s entirely right. The odd thing is that he seems somehow surprised by this.

But there’s nothing to be surprised at here. When parties win and lose majorities, the battleground is almost always the center. When Democrats won in 2006 and 2008, they picked up a lot of centrist blue dogs, much to the annoyance of more progressive Dems. In 2010 it went the other way: Republicans walloped Democrats by killing off the blue dogs and electing a whole bunch of moderate Republicans. This year the tide turns again. The RINOs are getting picked off and will be replaced by moderate Democrats. They won’t call themselves blue dogs, but they won’t be much different.

There’s another part of this that’s surprising but shouldn’t be: namely that party activists are endlessly surprised about this. Whenever a party loses its centrists, it mathematically becomes more extreme and activists become convinced that this is the future. Democrats are finally getting more progressive! Republicans are finally getting more conservative! Now all we have to do is keep it that way as we rebuild a majority.

But rebuilding a majority means winning back those centrists. The party might, in fact, move a bit to the left or right during an entire cycle of this, but not nearly as much as activists wish. This is why people like John Boehner and Paul Ryan could never govern the House: the hard core of Freedom Caucus folks on the right might have grown, but so did the Tuesday Group in the middle. Even if the party had drifted right overall, it hadn’t actually drifted that far. There was still a huge abyss between left and right.

This dynamic matters a lot less when a party doesn’t control the presidency, so it probably won’t be especially visible in the Democratic Caucus if they win a majority tomorrow. But it will spring out of nowhere to surprise everyone yet again in 2020 if they manage to kick Donald Trump out of the White House.

I call this the Revenge of the Median Voter Theorem, which I continue to believe always gets its revenge no matter what fancy theories modern political scientists keep coming up with to claim that it’s dead. Tomorrow it will have its day again.


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