Monday, April 03, 2017

Book Review: America and The Missing Moderate Voter

If ever an author missed a golden opportunity to explain Donald Trump and the American voter, it might be David Brown, a history professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, with his new book, Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today.

The title alone makes you think he’s written about voters.  But you soon discover he focused on a few presidents, their moderate views and how that helped them win the White House.  

In a time when people are taking to the streets against Trump, yelling at Congressional representatives during town meetings, or venting anger on social media – in other words, in an era marked by high tension, distrust and vitriol as people attempt to figure out where the United States is headed – this book stands out as a total miss for these turbulent times.

Had he showed how Americans size up issues and candidates as they determine their voting preferences, this book would be a worthwhile read.  Comparing recent American voting habits to the most recent election, it’s hard to believe a candidate as disruptive as Trump will be seen again, from either major political party, and it’s unfortunate he didn’t explore this issue.

Another problem with this book is the history presented about President Carter.  If all you knew about Carter was what you read from Professor Brown, you might think his downfall was due to two challengers from within his own party, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and California Gov. Jerry Brown.  The U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran – which made him vulnerable to those challengers and destroyed his presidency – is never mentioned.

The next faux pas Brown makes is to repeat a tired criticism of the Republican Party – that unless it includes more minorities and women in its ranks, it’s likely to die off, a critique that circulated after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney failed to knock out Barack Obama from the White House in 2012, something that didn’t matter in 2016.

If there’s any take away from this book it might be that last November’s election was an aberration.  Over the last 40 years, Americans chose presidential candidates not too wedded to their political party.  Presidents Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama are cited as examples.

Indeed, a Gallup Poll, released in January 2016, about political affiliation suggests moderates should continue to win the White House because 42 percent of American voters identify as independents while 29 percent identify as Democrats and 26 percent identify as Republicans.  

If you're going to write about moderates, shouldn't this detail be in the book?  Perhaps the professor should take a class on research.  

“The rise in political independence is likely related to Americans’ frustration with party gridlock in the federal government,” Gallup reported.

But Gallup also pointed out a contradiction:  Sixteen percent of independents lean toward the Democrats and the same percentage leans Republican, giving each party more than 40 percent of all voters, meaning there are far fewer independents out there.  These numbers also provide a warning – politicians, at the national level, cannot stray too far left or too far right. 

They also say there’s not a shred of evidence the Republican Party will implode; that the Democrats will easily waltz back into the White House – because of the Electoral College just might stop them again in 2020 – or that they’ll dominate Congress after next year’s midterm elections because more voters find Democratic Party positions acceptable.  In other words, there are no guarantees about future elections.

The problem with this book is that the author was lazy.  He doesn’t offer a shred of new scholarship nor does he take a chance to explain why Americans tend to prefer moderates at the helm.  Instead, he parrots what others have written.  That said, his conclusion appears accurate:  A successful presidential candidate tends to be a centrist, someone independent voters and the party faithful find suitable.  

But had he done the work a book like this requires -- examining Americans’ tendency to skew a hue of purple instead of bright red or deep blue, checked his history, perhaps even accompanied reporters during last year’s primary and election seasons as they interviewed voters, it would stand out for offering great discovery about the American citizen.  As it stands, however, it isn’t worth the money.

Publishing Information:

Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, From the Founding to Today, by David S. Brown.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.  Available at and for $34.95

Gallup Poll: