Since I took an informal oath a while back not to write about politics, let’s treat this rumination as an exercise in sociology. The question, raised in another recent blog, is why political media analysts insist on the “equivalence” theory of political confrontation? According to that theory both parties are represented by the extremes in their respective coalitions, Republicans by the far right and Democrats by the far left. These extremes have led to “polarization”.
The primary defeat of Senator Richard Lugar, a man considered reasonably conservative when he entered the U.S. Senate in the 1970s, reveals a great deal about the center of ideological gravity in the Republican party. When Senator Lugar, and even more spectacularly Senator Orrin Hatch and his former colleague Robert Bennett, are considered too “liberal” by Republicans in Indiana and Utah, respectively, you have to know we are not dealing with any traditional definition of liberal and conservative. Instead, they were attacked by ultra-conservative forces for one simple reason: they believed in seeking honorable compromise with Democrats.
The man who defeated Senator Lugar stated the de facto official Republican party position: there will be no compromise on anything with Democrats. This leaves aside the significant fact that every Democrat in Congress was elected by a majority of citizens, as was the incumbent President, in their respective States and districts and that registered Democrats represent roughly half of Americans. I’ve studied American history pretty carefully and I can’t find another period where an entire major political party took a rule-or-ruin approach to government.
Democrats are accused of “polarization” simply because they refuse to vote for extreme right positions on reduced taxes for the wealthy, cuts in humanitarian programs, and military spending the Pentagon doesn’t want.
The extreme position essentially says that half the country does not deserve representation. My friend and former colleague, Senator Jack Danforth, echoed by former Senator Chuck Hagel, recently said this was not the philosophy of the Republican party to which he belonged.
Largely by internal assault the Republican party purged (including by retirement) moderate Senators of a previous era, such as Percy, Mathias, Case, Javits, and Specter more recently, and are now purging traditional conservatives. (There is a long history of ideological purges, but only in totalitarian states.) Efforts to identify Democrats defeated by more liberal primary opponents yield only Senator Lieberman.
Name-calling is cheap. Calling President Obama a “socialist” may make radio talkers feel clever and powerful, but that does not make it so. No question, advocacy of same gender marriage is “liberal” in the traditional sense of tolerant and inclusive. But Norman Thomas never made it close to the White House and never will.
Who are the far left liberals running the Democratic party? Labor and public employee unions are trying to hold on to pensions and benefits won years ago. Economic conditions may make this effort impossible. But they are hardly in any traditional liberal mode of seeking more. Advocates for the elderly, children, and the poor are not seeking to expand modest (by European standards) human assistance programs. They too are simply trying to preserve these humane programs. Environmentalists are likewise in a reactive mode, trying to prevent further destruction of nature’s infrastructure on which all life depends.
So where is the evidence for the presence of extreme left ideology, the counterpart of the rightward lurch of the current Republican party? A Ph.D. in political science is not required to know that the center of political gravity has shifted substantially to the right in recent years and therefore that the stalemate and gridlock in government is not the result of diametrically opposed political extremes. Yet that is the way it is still portrayed in the political media. If anything, liberal and progressive forces outside of government are dismayed at the perceived willingness of the President and Congressional Democrats to compromise away hard-one social victories during the New Deal and Great Society eras.
Eventually, on their own and with little help from the political media, America’s citizens will realize political gridlock is the product of ultra-right, anti-compromise forces now dominating the Republican party. And when they do, we might have a chance to restore reasonable government to our nation.