Not Just An Abstraction Anymore

The Matrix Validated

by Michael Briand

This piece was originally published in Issue 2 of The Transpartisan Review.

America’s political system is troubled. The chief problem, though, is not unbridgeable differences between partisans of the left and right. Rather, it’s the divide that’s opened up between “ordinary” people and the nation’s political elite.

As evidence, consider that, since 1968, more than four out of every ten people eligible to vote in presidential elections has chosen not to. (1) Among those who do vote, many cast their ballots without enthusiasm, more from of a sense of duty or out of habit than from the expectation that they can shape the nation’s policy-making. Between half and two-thirds of adults in our country are either so indifferent to politics, or so put off by it, that they have as little to do with politics as they can. (2)

Can we blame them? Politics doesn’t seem to accomplish much these days. (3) A study by Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University (4) looked at more than 20 years of data to answer this question:

‘Does the government represent the people?’ They found that the opinions of the bottom 90 percent of income-earners in America have essentially no impact at all on the decision-making of elected officials. As the authors put it, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ One reviewer went further: ‘If you’ve ever felt like your opinion doesn’t matter and that the government doesn’t really care what you think, well, you’re right. Your opinion literally does not matter.’ (5)

For a variety of reasons, the ‘system’ isn’t working the way it used to. (6) For example, because of gerrymandering, more than 98 percent of Congressional seats are “safe” for the incumbent, whether Democrat or Republican. Owing to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, organized interest groups now can provide friendly candidates and incumbents with almost unlimited financial support for their campaigns. It seems clear that the influence that “professional partisans” can bring to bear in Washington, D.C. and even in state capitals is growing by leaps and bounds relative to that of the ordinary citizen.

Would it make a difference to the conduct of politics if the 50 to 70 percent of Americans who do not vote—or who vote but do so with little interest, passion, or feeling of empowerment—felt engaged enough to express an informed preference at election time? We believe it would. To understand why we believe this, let’s revisit the Transpartisan ‘matrix’.

The Four-Quadrant Matrix

When we think about how to describe ourselves in political terms, most of us try to place ourselves somewhere on the traditional liberal-conservative spectrum. But there’s more to our political views than how far “left” or “right” we are. People’s political outlooks are influenced by deep assumptions and predispositions that relate to two basic orientations, not just one.

• The “Left-Right” Axis: The horizontal axis, above, is the familiar liberal-conservative continuum. It reflects where people stand on distributional questions. These are economic issues, including welfare, entitlements, jobs, wages, trade, income distribution, etc. Placement on the left-right spectrum reflects our beliefs about how much equality we want. Who gets what? And who decides? At its most basic, the left-right axis of the matrix reflects our answers to the question of how far beyond the borders of our “natural affections” for family and friends we should extend our care and concern for others. Who matters in a community or society? Does everyone matter the same, or are some persons (and groups) “more equal” than others? Should we care the same for everyone, or may we care about some more than others?

• The “Freedom-Order” Axis: The continuum that forms the vertical axis reflects where people stand on moral issues (abortion, religion, education, free speech, marriage, criminal punishment, drugs) and on issues relating to people’s primary needs (military defense, terrorism, police and criminal prosecution), especially those having to do with their identities (race, gender, immigration, patriotism). Broadly speaking, the continuum has to do with what’s right and wrong, fair and unfair, proper and improper. It also has to do, therefore, with the question of who has moral authority: the individual or the community (society)? Should the individual defer to the judgment of the group? In what circumstances and in connection with what issues?

Why is the matrix important? On any given issue, people’s views may fall at any point within any of the four quadrants created by the two continuums. The matrix invites us to add nuance to what is otherwise a vastly oversimplified characterization of people’s views. Trying to capture people’s political views by indicating where on the left-right spectrum they fall oversimplifies their complexity. Oversimplification may cause us to misread the true sources of people’s beliefs and attitudes, our own included. Misreading leads to misunderstanding, and hence to lack of appreciation for people’s legitimate concerns, and to lack of empathy and respect for them as persons. In turn, we may fail to recognize potential allies among the folks who are distant from us on the left-right continuum, but close to us on the freedom-order spectrum (or vice versa).

Moreover, where we locate ourselves on both continuums changes from issue to issue. As a result, we miss many opportunities for alliances and cooperation across “party lines.” We need moreof these shifting alliances to preserve our political relationships and to free our politics from the gridlock and partisan antagonism that keep us from making progress on the nation’s problems and challenges.

[Image adapted from Drutman, Lee. Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond Tensions Between and Within the Two Parties, June 2017.]

The matrix validated. A recent study of voters during the 2016 election shows how useful the matrix is. (7) Using a diagram almost identical to the matrix, Lee Drutman plotted voting data along two axes. As you can see in the diagram above, most Clinton voters clustered around a position close to the “left” pole of the distribution (left-right) axis and close to the “freedom” pole of the morality-identity (freedom-order) axis. Trump voters, in contrast, clustered around a position near the “order” pole of the of the morality-identity (freedom-order) axis and just slightly right of center on the “distribution” (left-right) axis.

What does this analysis tell us? First, it tells us
that voters who leaned Democratic in 2016 hold views that are less moderate than those of those who leaned Republican. Further, it implies that, if the two groups were willing to meet each other half way in order for a more pragmatic majority point of view to emerge: 1. Trump voters would need to move only slightly farther left on the left-right continuum (from the red circle to the purple circle, above); 2. Clinton voters would need to move right on the left- right continuum (from the blue circle to the purple circle), to a spot that is still left of center); 3. On the freedom-order continuum, Clinton voters would need to move substantially toward the order pole on the freedom-order continuum (from the blue circle to the purple circle)—much more so than 4. Trump voters would have to move toward the freedom pole (from the red circle to the purple circle).

The second point to glean from the diagram above has to do with Ross Douthat’s observation that the “freedom-right” quadrant is almost empty. Why did both Clinton and Trump appeal to so few people with a socially liberal but fiscally conservative outlook? It’s not that such people are unknown to American politics. As Douthat pointed out, a lot of people who are active in politics can be characterized in this manner.

And therein lies a clue. The explanation for why so few voters with this outlook voted for neither Clinton or Trump is likely that they did not vote at all. Surely, among the 40 percent of eligible voters who did not vote there must have been some not- insignificant percentage whose political perspective can be characterized as socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

Why is this important? Look again at the diagram. Non-voters whose outlook would place them in the freedom-order quadrant of the matrix would, had they voted, “pulled” the blue circle to the right on the left-right continuum and the red circle toward the freedom pole of the freedom-order continuum. How much the “center” would have moved, we can’t say. But in a close election like 2016, it might have changed, if not the outcome, at least the perceived “mandate” of the winning side.

It’s interesting to speculate on what might have been. But it’s much more important for what is yet to be. The country needs a new political majority, one that is sufficiently appealing to the great majority of Americans that the major political parties must heed their views and begin working together to craft policies that are acceptable to that majority. The matrix makes it clear that the political center of the electorate is probably somewhat more redistributionist (i.e., left-leaning on the left-right continuum) and considerably less individualist (order-leaning on the freedom-order continuum) than all of us — elected officials not least of all — have been inclined to believe.

If we want politicians to leave their ideologies at home when they go to the office to conduct the people’s business, we will have to make it clear that we are as willing to work together despite our partisan differences as we want them to be. In other words, we are going to have to think and act in a more transpartisan fashion than we are doing currently. The question for us is, how shall we accomplish that? The Transpartisan Review is a place for all of us to discuss this vital matter.

  2. ‘Tens of millions of registered voters did not cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, and the share who cited a “dislike of the candidates or campaign issues” as their main reason for not participating reached a new high of 25 percent.’ Lopez, Gustavo and Flores, Antonio. ‘Dislike of candidates or campaign issues was most common reason for not voting in 2016’. Pew Research Center. June 1, 2017. tank/2017/06/01/dislike-of-candidates-or-campaign-issues-was-most-common-reason-for-not-voting-in-2016/
  3. “[A] consensus politics based around what voters actually want…would be very moderately culturally conservative and very moderately economically liberal, and it would [occupy] the place where Trump won voters who had previously voted for Obama. …The task of statesmanship should be to reconcile the wisdom in the elite view (of which there is some, here and there) with the wisdom of the wider public. Douthat, Ross. “In Search of the American Center.” The New York Times. June 21, 2017. of-the-american-center.htmlemc=edit_th_20170621&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=57317676&_r=0
  4. Gilens, Martin, and Page, Benjamin. ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.’ Journal of the American Political Science Association. 2014. default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf See also Cassidy, John. ‘Is America an Oligarchy?’ The New Yorker. April 19, 2014. john-cassidy/is-america-an-oligarchy
  5. Gidfar, Mansur. ‘20 years of data reveals that Congress doesn’t care what you think.’ 20-years-of-data-reveals-that-congress-doesnt-care-what-you-think
  6. It can be argued that, as a nation, we have entered an age that could not have been imagined by the Founders, and that, in consequence, our political institutions are showing signs of age and no longer can produce, reliably and effectively, the outcomes they were designed to achieve.
  7. Drutman, Lee. “Tensions Between and Within the Two Parties.” June 2017. reports/2016-elections/ political-divisions-in-2016-and-beyond
Comment from the Creators of the Transpartisan Matrix

In this article, Michael Briand expands the Transpartisan Matrix concept in three ways. First, he arrays 2016 voting data organized by Lee Drutman on the Transpartisan four-quadrant matrix, placing the left/right continuum into a larger freedom/order context. Second, he describes how this matrix-created context allows, issue-by-issue, ‘nuance’ to play a greater role in our political debate. Third, he describes how this more robust context, shaded by nuance, creates/discovers/reveals opportunities for collaboration across conventional left/ right constraints.

We think this expansion of the Matrix concept uncovers some additional useful information. First, the Drutman 2016 data includes only voters. We believe that the empty quadrant—free-right in this rendering of the data on the Transpartisan Matrix—represents the 44% did-not-vote constituency. Recognizing this 44% of the age-eligible voting public underscores the degree to which the society at large is moving in the individual freedom direction. This recognition, in turn, makes more vivid the degree and cause of separation between the ‘public’ and the ‘politicians.’

Second, in our essay “The Transpartisan Effect” in this issue of the Transpartisan Review, we report New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s comment that the Lee Drutman data array reveals a voter consensus that sits ‘in the place where Trump won voters who had previously voted for Obama.’ We see Obama/Trump voters as part of a transpartisan public—not bound by party or ideology. They respond to authenticity, charisma, and apparent independence, all of which are subjective and difficult to count or poll for. Their subjectivity makes them wildcards. That transpartisan public also includes the 44% nonvoters.

Finally, we believe that posting the voting data on the Transpartisan Matrix broadens consideration from what Lee Drutman calls ‘social’ issues to what Ross Douthat, reporting on Drutman’s data Matrix, calls ‘moral’ issues. This shift clarifies the subjective aspects of the current political environment. As Michael Briand points out, the ‘Freedom-Order’ axis addresses moral issues, people’s primary needs and personal identities. Broadly speaking, the continuum addresses what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, proper and improper—all subjective concerns.

When Briand rotates the Lee Drutman Matrix and arrays the 2016 voting data on the Transpartisan Matrix, he creates an opportunity to make nuanced observations on the subjective aspects of the entire voting eligible population, including the 44% did-not-vote cohort. This array offers a blueprint for leadership for any current officeholder and for all out-of-office challengers, resisters, and ambivalents. It points to a significant portion—50 to 70%—of the voting eligible population as disinterested in the partisan arguments that currently dominate our political debate.

Creating an agenda that intentionally avoids left/right conventionalities offers promise to any political leader clever and bold enough to run with it. For a taste of how such an approach might work, see Emmanuel Macron, President of France, and some of his news, speeches, and biography. Opportunity knocks. A blueprint points the way. Is there a leader in the house?

– A. Lawrence Chickering & James S. Turner

This piece was originally published in Issue #2 of The Transpartisan Review alongside several articles exploring how broad ideas and social forces are shaping our political institutions and our choice of leaders, including President Donald Trump.

This issue also contains a more detailed introspection of how we, and our colleagues & contributors, see the forces behind the daily events we write about each week.

Read or Download: Transpartisan Review, Issue #2


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