What Happened to the Middle in New Jersey Politics?

Middle-of-the-road, common-sense politics in New Jersey have been taken over by the far left and the far right.

Political illustration depicting Democrat and Republican symbols
Illustration: Thesipot/Dean Rohrer

It’s no secret that New Jersey and the nation are more politically polarized than ever. But it’s not only political; sometimes, the issue becomes highly personal. 

A few months ago, one of my closet friends—whom I grew up with in our Italian American neighborhood in Newark and who is now a big-time Trump supporter—said to me, “You know, Steve, we are heading toward a civil war, and everyone is going to have to pick a side. Whose side are you going to be on?” That was hard to hear. This is a guy I’ve known for several decades, and we are really close. However, I currently reside in Montclair, a notoriously left-leaning, progressive community that some refer to as “the people’s republic of Montclair,” a reference to socialism and, yes, communism. 

In general these days, we hear a lot about the far left and the hard right. I started to ask myself: What happened to the middle? You know—common sense, moderate. Crazy stuff like preserving democracy, the integrity of an election, the peaceful transition of power, supporting law enforcement, and being aware of prejudices that often disproportionately affect minority citizens. 

This whole thing of picking sides-—far left, far right, civil war—how did we ever get to such an unhealthy, crazy, pathetic state? And more importantly, how can we ever get out of it and back to a better and more functional political environment, starting right here in the Garden State?

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According to Jeanette Hoffman, Republican strategist and president of Marathon Public Affairs, political parties have become more extreme due to our flawed redistricting process. “Instead of creating competitive congressional and legislative districts with an even mix of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, the current process seeks to protect the incumbents,” Hoffman says. As a result, Hoffman says, you see a lot of Republican and Democratic districts where the election is decided in the party primaries, in which only a small percentage of the population votes and party extremism is rewarded.

From another perspective, Phil Alagia, a longtime Democratic operative and chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, says, “One of the dangers is that the left wing of our party is loud.” Alagia also says many blue-collar workers, police and firefighters vote Republican because “they hear that very liberal wing of the party more than they look at the actions of Biden, who has been more about border control…but that wing of our party seems to be what’s moving the middle away.”

So there you have it. Two reasonable, thoughtful perspectives, one from a Republican and one from a Democrat. I’ve known Jeanette and Phil for years. They disagree on a whole range of issues, but they respect each other. Neither would demonize the other or consider them the enemy. They just don’t see the world the same way when it comes to politics. 

Imagine that—Democrats and Republicans disagreeing without hating each other. But how many of these folks are left? Are they increasingly becoming a dying breed? I pray they are not, but my greatest fear is that they are. Then the question becomes, what happens to our representative democracy, and how long can it last? Like I said: What the heck happened to the middle?

Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of six books, including his newest, Lessons in Leadership 2.0: The Tough Stuff. He is an Emmy Award–winning anchor with programs airing on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. He has also appeared on CNN, CBS News and NBC’s Today show. Steve Adubato’s Lessons in Leadership video podcast, with cohost Mary Gamba, airs Sundays at 10 am on News 12+. For more information, visit stand-deliver.com.

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