Where Has Moderation Gone?

The United States primaries are partially to blame for the creation of the divided country and polarized political landscape we have today. To have a chance at winning the U.S. presidency, candidates first must win their party’s primary. There are many factors that go into winning a primary, but none of these are the ability to woo a centrist audience or voters who are uncertain about which party to support. Instead, candidates often slide further away from the center of the national political spectrum and closer to the extremes of their own party’s desires. One fresh example of this is the Republican party’s nomination of President Donald Trump; he successfully stood out from the packed field in the 2016 primaries by outdoing his opponents in extreme statements and claims, such as the now aging chants of “build the wall” and the now less common “lock her up” directed at opponent Hillary Clinton. This worked to distinguish and propel Trump to his nomination, and it seems likely that in the upcoming Democratic primary, candidates will have to stress their own polarizing desires to win.

Pushing contenders further from the center has the benefit of bringing attention to ideas that may have received little in the past, such as a high tax on the rich (which seems likely to be embraced in some form by all serious contenders for the Democratic nomination). However, the effect of driving candidates away from the center — especially those who may have been successful on a national level but cannot make it far because of the primary process — works to only increase a polarized landscape. To win a primary today, the route for either party to take is a radical one, such as the one Trump pursued in 2016. To stand out, candidates must be willing to shift their promises further from the center.

By nature this process eliminates any moderate candidates as well as candidates who are interested in unifying the country’s divided political populace. Instead of raising the option of a presidential candidate vying for unification, the primary process pushes political identities further apart. This is easy to see in the upcoming Democratic primaries as candidates work to distinguish themselves through flashy (if unlikely to ever come to fruition) proposals. Judging by Trump’s emergence from the crowded Republican field (which seems fair since the Democratic primary is already becoming crowded), it will take extreme statements to stand out from the crowd and become the party nominee. The process that selects a party’s candidate from a crowded field poses a serious roadblock to the nomination of a more centrist and potentially more popular candidate who desires to reduce polarization, and therefore will target neither party extreme.

Whether or not a centrist candidate would be nationally appealing is definitely uncertain. It may be that the nation does indeed desire divisive candidates and a candidate working to compromise and strike a middle ground would never win, but the primary process makes this question impossible to answer. Candidates would benefit the country if they worked to break this trend and run a campaign that stood apart through its dedication to unification.

Years of primaries have entrenched divisions in the country and have created the trend of hopefuls working to receive enormous support from one side of the political spectrum while distancing the other. To address national polarization, political parties should start by reevaluating their primary process. Any significant change to an existing system is a risk, but without attempting to shift this norm, political division will only grow and national unity will continue to fray.