Dysfunctional. Divided. Broken. These are just a few ways to describe the current state of polarization, not only in Washington but in this nation’s body politic.
Underneath the partisan political divides of today lies a broader trend in American politics which often goes unnoticed: the gradual death of the moderate. The moderate politician, whether Democrat or Republican, has become a rarity in the 115th Congress for good reason. This change was not spurred by a single political moment, such as the rise of the Tea Party or the emergence of the Alt-right, but rather a long-term trend which has spanned decades. In this piece, The Politic explores the story of one moderate Republican, Charles Dent (R-PA), who was driven from Congress and tries to answer the question of why this is becoming a trend.
The recent announcement of Representative Charles Dent’s (R-PA)retirement evidences the gradual broader trend of moderate politicians fading from the American political landscape. During his tenure as a Representative, Dent became a subcommittee chairman for the House Appropriations Committee in 2014 and eventually the Chairman of the coveted House Ethics Committee in 2015. Despite these prestigious appointments, Dent conceded in his announcement that his work has been made more difficult by “influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder, and chaos.”
So why has a moderate Republican, who enjoyed the benefits of senior and powerful appointments, decided to leave the House with no ostensible backup plan?
Dent began his political career as many in Congress do: by serving in his state’s legislature. He first served in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives for eight years, and he followed this with six years in the Senate. In the state legislature, Dent chaired a task force focusing on the state’s children and youth placement services. He also helped create Adult Basic, a program designed to provide health care service for low-income, working adults.
After his tenure in the state house, Dent ran to represent Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives and won with nine-point margin against his Democratic opponent. His seat was previously occupied by the staunch conservative, Pat Toomey, who vacated the seat to seek election to the U.S. Senate. His district is one of the so-called “Pivot Counties” which voted for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but flipped in favor of President Trump in the 2016 election cycle.
During his tenure in the House, Dent became a member of the Republican centrist group, the Republican Main Street Partnership, and in 2007 became co-chair of the Tuesday Group, another centrist group founded in 1994 to counterbalance conservative takeover of Congress. When describing his role in the moderate group Dent said in his retirement announcement he “believed it was critical for me to amplify the group’s voice, both internally within Congress and publicly in the media, and use that voice to advance Tuesday Group”.
Throughout his career, Dent has shown a pragmatic approach to governing. He stood up to Republican leadership, namely then-Speaker John Boehner, in the 2013 government shutdown caused by one of many efforts by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and conservative groups like Heritage Action to defund the Affordable Care Act.
In a 2013 interview with the New York Times on the ongoing shutdown, Dent said,“When you’re in this business of governing, sometimes you must step up and govern.”
And govern he did. Earlier that year he was one only 22 Republicans to vote to avoid fiscal collapse, provide relief to Hurricane Sandy victims, and enact the Violence Against Women Act.
Dent has been open in his critiques of President Trump, often speaking out visibly to the national media. Along with many Republicans, Dent urged Trump to drop out of the race for the presidency after the “Access Hollywood” scandal. He also critiqued the hiring of Michael Flynn as Trump’s National Security Advisor as “indefensible.” Following Trump’s remarks regarding the riots in Charlottesville Dent tweeted that the president “must stop the moral equivalency! AGAIN, white supremacists were to blame for the violence in #Charlottesville.”
Considering Dent’s ardent opposition to the President, it’s easy to imagine how he faces criticism from the right. In Pennsylvania State Representative Justin Simmons’ announcement of his intent to run for the 15th Congressional District seat, Simmons blasted the incumbent. He claimed that “Charlie Dent has completely gone off the rails…Dent spends most of his efforts conspiring with Democrats to undermine the Republicans in Congress and the President.”
With this kind of rhetoric emerging from the fringes of the Republican Party, it is easy to see why moderates like Dent would want to leave.
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University Danielle Thomsen, in her new book,“Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates,” outlines the long-term trend of polarization negatively affecting moderate candidates and officeholders. After talking to 25 former members of Congress, Thomsen concludes that there three main reasons that moderates are opting out of Congress: policy incentives, party benefits, and personal benefits.
Firstly, the power which moderate Republicans have to shape policy in Congress has diminished over the past several decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, moderate Republicans held an influential position in Congress, as they could dictate whether policy passed or failed by withholding a substantial amount of votes. In an interview with The Politic, Thomsen stated that when the Republican Party moved to the right and Congress became more conservative, “the ability that moderates had to shape the policy agenda and particularly to withhold votes on particular legislation that they didn’t like diminished as their numbers diminished”.
Members of Congress also seek influential and meaningful party benefits, which typically manifest through committee assignments and leadership positions. Thomsen said she found many moderates “couldn’t get a leadership position, they couldn’t get a choice committee assignment, or they couldn’t transfer to a more desirable committee because they weren’t reliable votes and the party leadership wasn’t willing to risk it.” As a result, she explained, even when moderates win elections and hold office, they are often unable to integrate into party leadership or exert influence over important policy.
Additionally, Thomsen emphasized that substandard qualities of life wear on moderates and that this is a contributing factor in the choice to retire. According to Thomsen, congressional scholars do not usually discuss quality of life, which she found surprising because “every member [of Congress] that [she] talked to highlighted it.”
Thomsen found that “informal bullying and the informal interactions that these members have outside of committee, like in the elevator and in the hallway can really grate and wear on moderates who are getting the short end of most of the sticks in Congress right now.” When referencing relations between conservative and moderate members of Congress, one staffer she talked to summed up the toxic environment, saying, “you can view these people as anathema to everything you stand for.”
Moderates are disappearing from Congress, slowly but surely. How can this be addressed?
Thomsen addresses previous strategies including campaign finance reform and primary voting reform, such as California’s “Top-two” policy, both of which have failed to bring moderates into the political pipeline. Though moderates cannot be seen as equivalents to underrepresented groups like Latinos, African Americans, or women, Thomsen does not believe that “the tactics or the strategies for getting them to run differ that much from the other groups.”
A first step in getting moderates to seek election is actively recruiting them. Some specific means of recruitment include an assurance of financial backing and party incentives. While moderates probably won’t decide to run of their own accord Thomsen told The Politic, “I think that with a little concerted effort it’s not impossible”. While the Republican Party probably will not provide this support, moderate groups could begin to affect this sort of change if they become more actively involved in the selection of candidates.
While moderates may not seem to play a central role in today’s polarized media and politics, they encourage compromise which is often necessary for sound governance.
In Dent’s words, “As a member of the governing wing of the Republican Party, I’ve worked to instill stability, certainty, and predictability in Washington. I’ve fought to fulfill the basic functions of Government, like keeping the lights on and preventing default.” Dent differentiates moderate Republicans as the “governing” faction of the party which leads not by advocating for radical change but by promoting a sustainable approach to governance.
Unfortunately, the fight to govern has become less rewarding for and less hospitable to political moderates. And if they continue to be ignored or ill-treated, moderates will continue to disappear. This retreat of moderates will only exacerbate the polarization and hostility which already pervades this nation’s political climate. The moderate must be saved. Though the path to their revival is not clear, it is certain that without a cry for help the moderate will only become more voiceless.
Jack Fresquez ’21 is a first-year in Berkeley College.