*Yes, I use scare quotes around the word "centrists". I don't think they actually represent the center of American political thought. Economically they are pretty consistently right-of-center. But our dumbed-down national media refuses to ever use the word "conservative" to describe a Democrat, so by default they are assigned the label "centrist".
Right now, the Republican Party controls
- the Presidency
- the Senate, with a 52-48 majority
- the House of Representatives, with a 241-194 majority
- Governorships is 33 of 50 states
- control of both houses of the state legislature in 32 of 50 states (Dems have only 13)
The Democratic literally hasn't been this politically weak since the days of Herbert Hoover.
By way of contrast, consider the situation in 1976:
- Democrats won the White House behind Jimmy Carter
- a filibuster-proof majority of 61-38 in the Senate
- a massive 292-143 majority in the House of Representatives
- 37 Governorships to 12 for Republicans
- a huge advantage in the number of state legislatures controlled
Yes, by picking the mid-70s as my initial point of comparison I've chosen a peak of anti-Nixon sentiment. But 1976 wasn't a wave election for Democrats. From the 1954 election through the Reagan wave in 1980, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and while the Senate flipped a couple times in the 1980s, Democrats controlled the House until 1994.
So what happened? Well the simplest explanation is that the Republican Party flipped the South. The Democratic Party was the party of the Confederacy, but as they also became the party of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960, they gradually lost favor in the South. Southern Democrats became "boll weevils" and "Reagan Democrats" and then eventually just became Republicans.
Starting in 1982, in response to the "Reagan Revolution" Democrats began to shift away from the more liberal stances of the 1960s and 1970s. People like Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and Bill Bradley argued that the Party had become too anti-business for its own good, and started a movement to pursue business-friendly "centrism" as an alternative. One name for this thinking is "neo-liberalism" which dates back to the 1930s. As an example of this thinking, see A Neo-Liberal's Manifesto by Charles Peters.
Said Mr. Peters:
"If neo-conservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative."
Gradually through the 1980s the neo-liberals took over the levers of party power. In 1984 Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination for the Presidency and got crushed at a national level by a very popular Ronald Reagan. Mondale was the last true liberal to get the nomination. Mike Dukakis in 1988 was a "technocrat" and since then the Democrats have stuck to "centrists": Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. (Note that not all of these people are equally "centrist". Indeed, since his defeat in 2000 Al Gore changed his focus to environmental issues and became reliably leftist. In 2008 Obama ran as a candidate to the left of Hillary Clinton and won the election easily, but his term as President could not accurately be defined as "liberal".
I've been sitting on this for a month. Will post now and do follow-up when convenient. Really aiming for a consideration of the "bell curve" model of the voting public.