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Friday, July 16, 2010

One hump or two?

The “bell curve”, or what mathematicians call the Gaussian distribution or the normal distribution, looks like this:

You’ve seen it, I’m sure. One of the startling results of the Central Limit Theorem in mathematics is that the bell curve arises naturally and unavoidably. But today I’m writing about politics not math.

For many years in our two-party system, Democrats and Republicans would strive to out-position the other near the center of the political spectrum between conservative and liberal. Well, politics are more complicated than that – but the basic and widely accepted premise was that centrist politicians would usually outpoll extremist politicians. In the example below,


Candidate A tends to prevail over Candidate B. The classic example is Lyndon Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The political center was high ground.

But about the same time that Cola-Cola discovered that they could increase profit by selling Sprite, Tab, Mr Pibb, Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Classic Coke, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, Diet Coke with Lemon, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, and so on ad infinitum, politicians discovered that segmenting the electorate could be effective. We began to see a two-humped curve like this:


If you’re a member of Party A, the trick is to increase the size of your party (or devotees) and decrease the size of the opposition. Suppose that Party A brings about the following:


Party A now has a significant advantage over Party B in the polls. It seems to me that since 1980, this bimodal approach to politics has replaced the “centrist positioning” approach. I’ve heard operatives of both the Democratic and Republican parties advocate bimodal politics. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the US Congress has become deeply partisan and is frequently slow or even unable to do its job.

Bimodal politics seek to polarize the electorate and turn centrists into zealots. That’s unfortunate. I’m a centrist, and increasingly I feel alienated by both political parties. (Yes, I’m an engineer by training and I know that engineers tend to be Libertarian. But I am deeply committed to the two-party system.)

What is a centrist to do, in this climate?