After the surprising result of the special election for Alabama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, the pundit class is buzzing about the implications for the future direction of each political party. But the ideologically driven conclusions those pundits keep reaching are inward-looking and wrong.
Alabama’s powerful message about where both parties need to go: the political center.
That’s where Tuesday’s election was won and lost, and this illustration of the strength and importance of independents and moderates is the most important takeaway for America’s politics.
Party tribalists voted as they were expected to in the Alabama contest: 92% of Republicans voted for Roy Moore and 98% of Democrats voted for Doug Jones. It was a landslide of moderates that elected Jones: three times as many of them voted for the former U.S. attorney as voted for Moore.
Without the atmospheric gravity of party affiliations weighing on them to vote a certain way, independents were free to consider the implications of electing Moore, whose baggage only begins with the charge of trolling for young girls at shopping malls. Not surprisingly, those voters overwhelmingly chose to keep Moore in Alabama rather than turn him loose in the Capitol as their senator.
That’s a profound reversal from the last U.S. Senate election in the state, when independent voters helped re-elect Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) by a crushing 65% to 35% margin over his Democratic opponent. But then again, Shelby is a classic Alabama centrist, elected to the Senate as a conservative Democrat in 1986, winning a second term as a Democrat in 1992, and then switching to the Republican Party in 1994.
While Shelby and some centrist-appealing GOP politicians like Utah’s Mitt Romney and Colorado’s Cory Gardner encouraged Alabama voters to put patriotism and good judgment over the party’s narrow short-term interests, President Trump and many other Republicans urged party loyalty above all else. As we saw on Tuesday, the appeal to higher values won out.
But that’s not stopping GOP establishment types from believing the party’s screw-ups all lie inside the GOP itself. The same people who for weeks have been proclaiming, “Nobody tells Bama voters what to do!” spent weeks doing just that, and then instinctively and arrogantly pointed fingers the morning after, finding fault with Washington-based strategies and tactics.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) blamed party leadership for the loss: “Mitch McConnell should have stayed out of this race. If he would have, we’d have a Republican U.S. senator coming up there—not a Democrat.”
U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), on the other hand, tweeted that it was GOP rebel leader Steve Bannon’s fault: “After Alabama disaster GOP must do right thing and DUMP Steve Bannon.”
But grounded through common sense and good judgment rather than tethered to hardline party ideology, moderate and independent Alabama voters didn’t need politicians or celebrities to explain to them the implications of voting for a man with an alleged history of hitting on 14-year-old girls.
It also didn’t take millions in TV ads to help those independents and moderates decide whether they should believe Moore’s denials of bad behavior. Most moderates didn’t.
The partisan political establishment needs to replace the arrogance of thinking that the election was about them or the other party. They’d be well-advised instead to start thinking about how to build political movements around forward-looking ideas and policies that address all-too-real middle class economic worries.
Before the election, conservative firebrand Steve Bannon lectured Republican loyalists, “There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better.” What he failed to understand is that the center of America, not shackled by tribal loyalty, gets to vote for whoever they want.
Wedge-issue-powered campaigns designed to “bring out the base” will be increasingly vulnerable to the bright lights of information and historical transparency. Movements and candidates that focus on appealing broadly to the common-sense center of the American electorate meanwhile, will likely find increasing success, just as they did in Alabama this week.
David Dodson is a lecturer in management at the Stanford School of Business and a serial entrepreneur.