A Recurrent Political Fantasy
Magically mobilizing nonvoters isn't going to happen (but it sounds nice, I suppose).
The Atlantic has an interesting profile on former US Representative Will Hurd (R-TX): The Revenge of the Normal Republicans, which includes discussions of his time in Congress, his new book, and his political ambitions. The subtitle is as follows: “Will Hurd thinks there are enough normal voters to deliver him the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But is he right?”
If you don’t want to read the rest of the post, I will go ahead and answer the question.
The answer is “no.”
(And it isn’t even even really the right question, even if it is a recurrent fantasy in our politics).
The basic notion is as follows:
What Hurd doesn’t know is whether America is ready to buy what he’s selling. The nation has been lulled into long-term complacency by elected officials and special interests and media personalities that have short-term motivations. The most engaged voters in his party—the people likeliest to cast ballots in a presidential primary—are, to varying degrees, addicted to the fear and grievances being peddled by people clinging to relevance. Hurd realizes that breaking this addiction won’t be easy. In fact, it might prove impossible.
He does, however, see another path forward—one that depends less on persuading those hardened partisans and more on mobilizing a different kind of voter. The overwhelming majority of conservative people in this country, Hurd says, are not watching Fox News every night or imbibing conspiracy theories online. They are not politically neurotic. In fact, they may have never voted in a primary to choose a nominee for president—and that’s the point. “They have been busy trying to put food on their table, put a roof over their head, take care of the people they love,” he says. “But now they’re getting fed up. They are tired of everybody. They are ready for something different.”
“Something normal,” Hurd says.
To start with, I emphasized “short-term motivations” because that is inherent to politics. Of course politicians (indeed, on balance, human beings) are short-term thinkers. Short-term rewards are enjoyed, you know, in the short term. Meanwhile, you have to wait for medium- and long-term goals. Heck, you might be out of office or even dead when those goals come to fruition. Also, as I have noted before, we elect House members to two-year terms. The motivation for short-term thinking is baked in.
In regards to his specific approach, part one of his plan is to mobilize people who have not been voting. Part two is to assume that those voters all want the same thing, and it just happens to be what Hurd is selling.
Setting aside that mobilizing millions of non-voters into action is, to put it mildly, not easy to do, there is a version of the pundit’s fallacy at work here (or the moderate’s fallacy, or the independent’s fallacy) and that is that all those non-voters out there must surely want what I want. But, of course, they all want any number of things, almost certainly none of which are what I want. And why do moderates always assume that all the non-participants must also be moderate (and their personal flavor of moderate, to boot?).
Indeed, by definition, “normal” above is simply what Hurd thinks it should be. But, alas, we all tend to think that we are the normal ones (which utterly undercuts the actual definition of “normal”).
At any rate,
He’s not under any illusion that consensus will magically appear. But he does believe that most voters—what he describes as the 80 percent clustered within range of the middle—are tired of being presented with binary choices when it comes to big, complicated questions.
That is just quite the assumption. While I will readily allow that 80% may be frustrated, there is no reason to believe that they are all frustrated for the same reason, let alone that they form a coherent voting bloc. As I frequently note, yes, a lot of people call themselves “moderate” or “independent” but that simply does not mean that they are a homogeneous group.
Further, this type of fantasy is tantamount to a guy who wants to be an NFL coach asserting that he has a new system, which is guaranteed to win, but all that it needs to work is for everyone (opponents included) to play the game in a way that is fundamentally different than it has been played for decades.
Look, I agree that there are more than two political groups of people in the US and that given the option we would have more than two parties. But, that is not going to happen under the current rules of the game. When it comes to selecting presidents both the nomination process and various aspects of the Electoral College utterly mitigate against multiple parties.
BUT, to be clear, the current rules of the game funnel voters in very specific ways while, at the same time, creating incentives for office-seekers to stay within the two-party framework. Wishing that a bunch of people who are already not motivated to participate will show up, whilst hoping that they are a homogeneous group that just so happens to think like you do, is no strategy to overcome the structural conditions of American party politics.
One thing I will say about Hurd, he is the type of politician I wish we had in Congress: the kind who actually thinks that the purpose of Congress is to solve problems. But that is not enough to overcome the current incentive structure of our system. Moreover, while there may be a lot of people who, in that abstract, think that Congress should solve problems, the fight always begins as soon as the conversation moves from “let’s get things done!” to prioritizing which problems to solve, and then, the kicker of how they should be solved.