The Center Lane is Wide Open
New polling shows that Americans are unique in viewing their political leaders as ideological extremists.
After the Democratic primaries in 2020, Joe Biden’s comeback victory over more left-leaning opponents was hailed as a triumph for his traditional brand of pragmatic centrism and bipartisan cooperation that later enabled him to win a decisive popular vote majority over Donald Trump in the general election. Biden swooped into office promising to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”
A year and half later, this center ground appears all but abandoned and out of reach—for both President Biden and former President Trump.
According to fresh new polling from Global Progress and YouGov, conducted among more than 10,000 respondents in 9 leading democracies, an eye-catching 44 percent of Americans today place President Biden on either the very left-wing (30 percent) or somewhat left-wing (14 percent) side of the ideological scale. Only 12 percent of Americans place Biden directly in the center of the political spectrum, with another 14 percent placing him on the center-left.
Perceptions of former President Trump are even more extreme: nearly 4 in 10 Americans place Trump on the very right-wing side of the political scale and another 17 percent see him as somewhat right-wing. A mere 7 percent of Americans place Trump in the ideological center and another 8 percent on the center right.
Likewise, about one third of Americans overall view the Democratic Party as very left-wing and an equal percentage view the Republican Party as very right-wing. Only around 10 percent of Americans place either Democrats or Republicans in the center of the ideological spectrum, respectively.
In stark contrast to perceptions of their national leaders and the two parties, one quarter of Americans place themselves directly in the center of the ideological spectrum, with another 18 percent placing themselves either on the center-left or center-right in equal percentages. Only 1 in 10 Americans place themselves on either the far left or the far right, respectively. There’s clearly a wide gulf between how Americans conceive of their own politics versus those represented by their national leaders and the two political parties.
Part of the explanation for this divergence lies in partisan interpretations of opposition leaders and parties in the United States.
For example, more than 7 in 10 Trump voters place President Biden on the very left-wing side of the ideological scale compared to less than 10 percent of Biden voters who think similarly. In turn, 6 in 10 Biden voters place former President Trump on the very right-wing extreme of the spectrum—nearly double the percentage of Trump voters who label their own guy as far right.
These patterns are repeated on views of the two parties: 73 percent of Trump voters place the Democratic Party on the very left-wing side of the ideological spectrum while 62 percent of Biden voters place the Republican Party on the very right-wing side. In comparison, only 12 percent of Biden voters place the Democratic Party on the far left and only 15 percent of Trump voters place the Republican Party on the far right.
These data suggest that regardless of what national leaders do or say in politics these days, most voters from the opposition party are likely to view them as ideologically extreme.
This does not happen to the same degree in other countries according to the new Global Progress/YouGov data.
In the United Kingdom, for example, most British citizens view Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as slightly left-of-center (26 percent) and another 1 in 10 place him directly in the center. Only 8 percent of British people view Starmer as very left-wing—more than three times lower than the percentage of Americans who label Biden as very left-wing. Even among Conservative voters from 2019, only 15 percent place Starmer on the far left with most seeing him as fairly left-wing or slightly left-of-center. In turn, most British citizens label Prime Minister Boris Johnson as fairly right-wing (28 percent), above the 16 percent who place him on the far right of the ideological scale. Labour voters from 2019 are more likely to view Johnson’s ideology as fairly right-wing rather than as very right-wing.
The pattern is repeated in Germany, Sweden, and Norway where current Social Democratic and Labour party leaders are all seen as more center-left than far left by citizens of their respective countries. Only 4 percent of Germans place Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the far-left side of the ideological spectrum, with most locating him in the center. Only 7 percent of Swedes place Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on the far left with nearly one third seeing her as slightly left-of-center. Only 6 percent of Norwegians place Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre on the very left-wing side of the scale with a plurality seeing him as center-left.
Interestingly, in France nearly 4 in 10 citizens place President Emmanuel Macron on the slightly right-of-center or fairly right-wing side of the ideological scale.
So, what’s going on? Why do Americans seem to view their leaders in such extreme ways compared to those in other democracies?
Perhaps citizens in European countries with multi-party systems have a keener understanding of the gradations of political ideology than do Americans with their two-party system. Perhaps citizens in these countries assess their leaders and parties more fairly than do Americans who appear to think most of their leaders are extremists. Perhaps the leaders in these European countries are more centrist in temperament and in practice than those in American politics.
More likely than not, American citizens are not any worse or better than others at understanding political ideology, and a leader like President Biden is not any more left-wing than his social democratic peers in Europe.
The difference in evaluations probably lies in the sorry state of national political discourse in the United States today. Americans operate under a daily barrage of culture war battles in the media along with constant partisan accusations of national treachery and radicalism hurled at opponents. In a context where all politics is presented as a zero-sum ideological fight for moral supremacy, many Americans are primed by media elites, social media trolls, and the billion dollar campaign industrial complex to view their leaders, particularly those from another party, as extremists. Sane Americans respond by tuning out the nonsense and turning away from politics altogether.
Yet, for America to flourish and overcome its biggest economic and security challenges, we all need to ratchet down the actual crazy politics—as well as the nonstop accusations of extremism for otherwise normal behavior and policy positions. Americans need to get out of the doom cycle of anger and mistrust that fuels partisan polarization. Those running our media and political institutions also need to relearn the art of measured political coverage and reasonable debate.
Although our politics seems hopelessly divided between the extremes, the center lane is still open to any political leader, party, or citizen willing to move over and occupy the space. To do this, Donald Trump needs an entirely different mode of politics to earn a legitimate second chance from a majority of American voters. In turn, Joe Biden needs to permanently shift back to the center lane where he started out—and be perceived as doing so by more Americans—if he wants to be reelected in 2024. And Americans themselves need to take a break from political combat and start rewarding those leaders who genuinely occupy the political center and stand up for the well-being of the entire nation.