January 12, 2020

Political Math in America: The Extremes Affecting the Mean.

by Hal Gershowitz

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In math, or more accurately in statistics, the outliers or the extremes always affect the mean (or the average). So too, today, in American politics. It seems the outliers (the extreme fringes) have greatly affected, even crippled, the center (the mean). It was axiomatic for a long time in our country that, in politics, a candidate who ventured too far from the center did so at his or her own peril. We have been or were for a long time, traditionally a centrist country. Sometimes center-right and sometimes center-left, but essentially, centrist.

Not so today. The statistical mode in our troubled electorate, that is, the largest cluster of voters on a graph showing the distribution of all voters, is coalescing well to the left or to the right of center in our body politic. To be unambiguous, that’s probably very dangerous because zealots generally ruin any cause.

Yes, yes, we appreciate that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” (with thanks to the late Barry Goldwater), but we’re not writing about such pithy principles in this essay. We’re referring to jingoistic MAGA on the right and naïve embrace of Kumbaya on the left.  Today, Extremeville is the place to be to garner attention in the American political arena, indeed, perhaps in most countries today in the western world.

It is not a new phenomenon. We’ve seen this rush to the fringes before in history, and it rarely ends well. When populations are troubled they generally do not seek comfort or guidance at the center of the political spectrum. To the contrary, they see little that is comforting at the center. That’s where they’ve been, not where they want to stay. Those who dominate the center are seen as the elites—as the others, unlike us, in command. Political opportunists from outside of the mainstream recognize this, and the strum and drang of political cross currents play out in a perpetual tug of war between the left and right. This invariably paves the way for newcomers, outliers, and often, troublemakers to gain currency.

So, today, the jabber of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Warren on the left and Trump and his acolytes on the right dominate political discourse in America. They reach America through a veritable super-charged bullhorn while everyone else vying for attention struggles with a weak varsity cone-shaped megaphone. Among Republicans here in America, right-wing nationalists and populists have been ascendant, as is true in Europe almost everywhere.

Among Democrats, the far-left commands most of the energy and attracts most of the money. Bernie Sanders is a proud socialist and his support is young, determined and robust. Elizabeth Warren’s call for structural change and Medicare-for-all is pretty much a mirror reflection of the Sanders positions with the only difference being that he proudly admits he is a socialist and she doesn’t. The rest of the Democratic voters, those who can’t bring themselves to embrace socialism, have pretty much coalesced around Joe Biden.

Donald Trump, historically, has not been either a committed rightist or leftist. He has been, rather, a committed opportunist. He has changed his party affiliation five times. He was a Republican in 1987, then left the Republicans and registered as a member of the Independence Party in 1999, and in 2001 he changed his party affiliation to Democrat. Then he returned to the Republican Party in 2012 before the runup to the 2016 election. Certainly not the profile of a life-long Republican. He liked Hillary and Bill Clinton “very much” in 2012. In 2012 he gave Obama high marks for the way he handled the economic crisis during the great recession. Two Administrations ago, he specifically supported universal healthcare going so far as to say what kind of country are we if we don’t take care of our sick. He was also a strong supporter of a tax on wealth then and, believe it or not, he was also “very pro-choice.”

But that was then, and this is now. Now, America, like Europe, has moved to the right and Trump, no longer a centrist has jumped on the bandwagon. He has taken all of those former rather liberal ideas and jettisoned them all. He is now the quintessential hard-right politician. He, like so many other politicians in the West, has vacated the center. He is a perfect example of how the extremes affect the mean in politics. He has not taken the country to the right. He merely read the tea leaves better than everyone else in the 2016 presidential race.

If there is a Republican position on controlling deficits we haven’t heard it for a long time. Runaway federal debt; who cares? Free trade; what is that? Like Professor Harold Hill, President Trump is simply leading the big parade. And the Party he leads has willingly become the trombone section.

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10 responses to “Political Math in America: The Extremes Affecting the Mean.”

  1. Robin Stonehill says:

    Well said

  2. Perry says:

    accurate analysis as usual. We in the center either left or right
    still are the majority thank goodness. As an individual who has
    voted both Democratic and Republican today I totally identify
    with Republican ideas. Sadly the Democratic party is mostly
    controlled by the leftists who are adamant in their ideology.

    One has to admit that under Trump the nation has done well both
    in terms of economy and in foreign policy. The Democrats were mostly Chamberlain of their day. Kerry and Clinton were
    bad for the country and we are paying for it today in a dangerous time.

  3. James Fisher says:

    Much of what you say is true but I disagree that Trump supporters are necessarily from the “right.” Why can’t a voter be legitimately “party agnostic” and simply support the candidate who best represents his/her views?

    A better name for a “party” supporting Trump would be the “American Party” since he stands for a stronger, more successful American nation with its traditional Judeo-Christian values.

    Trump’s picking and choosing from among different democrat or republican ideas or platforms is a positive in my opinion – not a weakness.

  4. J Wyllie says:

    Well said James Fisher! It took someone like Donald Trump to stir up the rats nest and flush them out. A person brash, bold and with a business background is what we needed. Unfortunately we have to take the “thorns with the rose” to get the job done. If a politician would have won in 2016; not referring to Hillary, as she is far from a politician. (Not sure what she is other than “crooked”,) nothing would have changed in regards to business as usual in DC. We all just need to cool our jets and grin and bear it until POTUS does his job. I just pray that he gets the chance to complete what he started in 2020. You have to say, it makes for good television.

  5. susan duman says:

    Sometimes when I open your essay I think you’re going to tell me it’s all going to be okay. You have not done that. You are not a pollster. You are an historian.
    Are you going to discuss Bloomberg in the future?
    No, I don’t think he’ll make it, but what he is doing in terms of advertising, and where he will go in the coming months is a story of it’s own.
    As I’m sure you know he has committed to being involved even if he doesn’t secure the nomination.
    Thanks for what you do.

    Susan Duman

  6. Mike says:

    Two thoughts.

    First, one of my favorite sayings is…”if you are going to get run out of town, get to the front and make it look like you’re leading a parade. Given the Dems hatred for Trump and their nonstop efforts to impeach him, he is just leading the parade.

    Second, I think the AOC’s and Bernie’s of the world have made it easier for Trump to attract the Independents and people who would identify as “Centrists.” What’s the alternative? The text messages I have received from the Sanders campaign paints an America that will resemble Venezuela. What sane sensible person wants that?

  7. Jim says:

    Your analysis is accurate and precise. The only think that I wonder about is that even before we were at the extremes, the group think and burdensome rules and regulations were a mess. The notion of changing that has been around for a long time. Jimmy Carter was a case in point.

  8. Michael Gong says:

    I can remember very clearly the time when many complained that there was no real difference between the two parties except for their rhetoric, that essentially they stood for the same values, the same policies, the same actions on major issues. We need a clearer choice, it was said. Well, we’ve got it now. Feel better? Considering who I was in the 60’s as a freedom marching, placard waving undergraduate, I can’t believe I have now ended up as a conservative moderate. Live and learn.

  9. Robert borns says:

    Decisions should principally made based on data and facts. But also an added measure must be the gut based on education and experience. Since relevant info comes in now fast and furious 24/7 instead of by carrier pigeon we have every right to change parties and opinions unlike the old days when we were only lifetime one party people. In fact I don’t see why anyone is a rock ribbed demo or republican. Example. Jews and blacks voted democrat. Why would they not vote for trump as he has done so much more for them than the dems have in recent times. He is truly the first black Jewish president.

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