False Centrism In An Era Of Republican Extremism

Americans Elect has failed to come up with a candidate to challenge the Democratic and Republican Party’s hold on the electoral system. There were problems with their idea. The group was backed by centrists but whenever you look at the types of policies self-described centrists want, you have a platform which is only very slightly to the right of that of the Democratic Party. Old concepts about moderation and centrism no longer hold when one party has moved to the extreme right, and the other party has responded by moving towards the center.

I was also not terribly impressed by the idea of picking a presidential candidate from one party and vice presidential candidate from the other. It just sounds like a gimmick, as if having candidates from different parties would make the party more representative of the entire nation.  If I were to seriously consider a party, it is the ideas promoted by the candidates and not their party affiliation which really matter. Match Ben Nelson and any Republican and for all practical purposes you would still have two Republicans. Substitute Joe Lieberman and it wouldn’t be much better.

There is one purpose I could see for gaining ballot access for a party which is center-right The move by the Republicans to the extreme right does not leave a home for less extreme Republicans. Perhaps some day the typical Republican voter will get a better idea as to what has happened to the Republican Party and will want a choice which reflects their views. Where does a supporter of Ronald Reagan vote these days with the GOP moving so far to the right of Reagan?

If people really wanted centrist positions, they would be backing Barack Obama, who has gone overboard in offering policies which compromise with Republican ideas even though Republicans refused to come to the table to honestly negotiate with him. It was a noble idea on Obama’s part, but the wrong time for this. Fortunately Obama has realized this and has gone on the offensive against Republican extremism.

Chuck Hagel, while still too conservative for my tastes, would be preferable to the current GOP leadership. Last week Hagel discussed why Ronald Reagan would not identify with the current Republican Party:

“Reagan would be stunned by the party today,” Hagel said in a long interview in his office at Georgetown University, where he now teaches. He also serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama‘s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Reagan wanted to do away with nuclear weapons, raised taxes, made deals with congressional Democrats, sought compromises and consensus to fix problems, and surrounded himself with moderates as well as Republican hard-liners, Hagel noted. None of that is characterized by the current GOP leadership, he said. In his eyes, the rise of the Tea Party and the influx of new GOP lawmakers in Congress have driven the party away from common sense and consensus-based solutions.

“Reagan wouldn’t identify with this party. There’s a streak of intolerance in the Republican Party today that scares people. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in a society because it always leads to a tragic ending,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was never driven by ideology. He was a conservative but he was a practical conservative. He wanted limited government but he used government and he used it many times. And he would work with the other party.”

The situation today is similar to where the GOP found itself in the early 1950s, when there was a battle for the direction of the party over the party’s identity, Hagel said. Dwight Eisenhower and his moderate allies won that fight, diminishing the influence of extremists like Joe McCarthy, Hagel said.

But today, the extremists are winning.

“Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before,” said Hagel. “You’ve got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction.”

Yesterday former Bush speech writer David Frum discussed the extremism of the GOP, repeating a recent argument by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein that the core of our political problems today stems from the current extremism of the Republican Party:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

After discussing the work of Mann and Ornstein, Frum went on to explain how the Republicans build support out of fear–with many acting out of fear to vote for Republicans contrary to their self-interest:

In these times, we are debating whether government should impose large reductions in programs or impose big increases in taxes — taking from people benefits that they now enjoy.

Human beings will typically fight much more ferociously to keep what they possess than to gain something new. And the constituencies that vote Republican happen to possess the most and thus to be exposed to the worst risks of loss.

The Republican voting base includes not only the wealthy with the most to fear from tax increases, but also the elderly and the rural, the two constituencies that benefit the most from federal spending and thus have the most to lose from spending cuts.

All those constituencies together fear that almost any conceivable change will be change for the worse from their point of view: higher taxes, less Medicare, or possibly both. Any attempt to do more for other constituencies — the unemployed, the young — represents an extra, urgent threat to them.

That sense of threat radicalizes voters and donors — and has built a huge reservoir of votes and money for politicians and activists who speak as radically as the donors and voters feel.

Which means the solution to the problems so astutely diagnosed by Mann and Ornstein must ultimately be found outside the American political system — and will not be solved until America’s rich and America’s elderly become either less fearful or more generous.

Add to that the racism, homophobia, and xenophobia of the Republicans, who scare conservative voters into fearing that people who are not exactly like them will take away what they have or otherwise represent a threat.

In an atmosphere such as this, there is no point in searching for a centrist position, treating the Republicans and Democrats as being on opposite ends of the spectrum with equally valid viewpoints to consider. As Mann and Ornstein pointed out, the problem comes from one party being extreme, and unwilling to work towards real solutions.