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    Is moderation coming to a polarized political era?

    A moderate Democratic incumbent will face off against a moderate Republican city councilperson for Fort Wayne’s mayoral election in November, a seeming aberration in a polarized political era.

    It’s not as if polarizing forces have not hit Indiana’s thriving second-largest city. Critics hammered Democratic Mayor Tom Henry for the police crackdown on George Floyd protests and hometown Pulitzer-prize winner Charlie Savage highlighted real political divides in his Politico feature “When the Culture Wars Hit Fort Wayne.” 

    Fort Wayne’s choice of moderation for 2023 is not unique for states and municipalities. New Yorkers replaced a leftist with a far more moderate mayor; Georgians reelected a governor unfavored by Trump; and San Francisco and Chicago sent a prosecutor and mayor packing for being too liberal on crime.

    So, are these indications of broader moderation in state and local elections? Will these trends hit Indiana elections in 2024?

    Political scientists differ on the reasons for America’s polarized parties. Some argue that Americans are genuinely divided on race, religion, gender, and cultural issues. Existing regional divides get supercharged by social mobility, where people move to match their preferred lifestyle, which has brought a red and blue America. Within Indiana, many have bolted for the burgeoning doughnut counties surrounding Indianapolis and others flock to Bloomington or trendy downtowns in Indy and Fort Wayne. This concentration of lifestyles and political beliefs makes moderation of one party, much less two, less likely. 

    The other side

    A contending political science view of polarization holds that Americans are generally moderate and weary of ideologically extreme, out-of-touch Washington leaders, whom a sensationalist media rewards. Choosing between cultural warriors means their pragmatic beliefs are ignored; they are turned off and feel unrepresented. 

    This polarization debate has consumed political scientists for two decades, but the explanations co-exist more than conflict. There are far more culturally divided partisans than when Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar won massive reelections in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Both lost their next elections badly in culturally driven election years to the regret of moderates and joy of activists.  

    Local party officials complain that national issues have rained down on them. Not being able to break through with local dimensions heightens divisions and with the loss of local media to contextualize politics on the ground, leaving national cable outlets to drive a polarized agenda.  

    The irony is that the culture wars actually started sixty years ago at the grassroots local level with debates about prayer in school, desegregation, reproductive health care, and policing. The difference now is that ambitious politicians seize on these divides to win primary elections, where ideological party activists dominate. Studies indicate that moderates often avoid running because of the ideological purity primary hurdle. 

    2024 barometer

    With three massive statewide elections for President, US Senate, and Governor, 2024 will be a telling year for whether there is a moderation trend in Indiana. It’s a case study for how statewide candidates will pitch their campaigns.

    Will Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, with a compelling resume for governor as a former state legislator, state auditor, and a portfolio of agricultural issues, run touting this experience and the administration’s successes with budget surpluses and legislative wins? Or will she bank on cultural issues and hedge on the administration’s policies during the pandemic that many Republicans — and some rivals — criticize?

    Scholars, politicians, and the media have to figure out the tension of moderation and polarization. Investment in local and state media outlets – like the Capital Chronicle – are vital to highlight the state and local dimensions of issues, rather than have them folded into national media narratives. Moderates have to run to offer an option. If the public really is frustrated with only extreme choices in primaries, then representative democracy is faltering.

    Finally, scholars should acknowledge that polarization has benefits – if reflective of public views – like increased voter participation. Fifty years ago political observers complained that the parties lacked clear positions for voters and that participation levels were low. 2020 was a record year for turnout. Meanwhile, while the Fort Wayne moderate mayoral face-off is a compelling story, the primary voter turnout that produced it was only slightly over 10%. 




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