Polarized Politics Led To Cantor’s Defeat– and Cochran’s Victory. Why the “Uncommitted Center” Is So Important (Cantor part 2)

Please scroll down for Part 1 of this post. 

When House Majority leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to ultra-conservative David Brat, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus summed up the majority view among political pundits: “The episode offers a disturbing commentary about the poisonous, polarized state of American politics.”  

I cannot agree. I don’t think “polarization” is toxic.  To the contrary, as the poet William Blake once wrote “Without Contraries, No Progress.”  Conflict can clarify issues, and help us move forward.  Indeed, the clash of opinions is a time-honored way of testing their validity.

Do you remember the 1990s, a decade when it became difficult to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans? While Republicans headed toward the far right, Democrats moved right of center. During his second term, Bill Clinton started to sound all too much like Ronald Reagan, as he set out to “reform welfare,” forcing single mothers to go to work, even though we weren’t offering them affordable day care. After leaving the White House, Clinton reclaimed his position as a stand-up liberal, but at the time, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans was badly blurred.

Today, the difference between the two parties is clear.  I wouldn’t say that Democrats are ultra-liberal, but conservatives have moved so far to the right that Democrats had no choice but to take a stand on critical issues including: global warming, gun control, the need to raise the minimum wage, and universal access to health care.

By contrast, in the 1990s, Congressional Democrats were “lukewarm” on health care reform. As  Paul Starr reports in his newest book, Remedy and Reaction, Senate Finance Committee chairman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, actually stood up to say, “We don’t have a health care crisis.”

But by  2010,  the crisis was obvious, and Democrats came together. Pelosi and Harry Reid marshaled the votes, and Congress passed legislation which, while far from perfect, is solidly progressive: Low-income and middle-income Americans receive the subsidies they need; insurers can no longer discriminate against people suffering from pre-existing conditions, and preventive care–including contraception–is free.There is much more work to be done, but at last, we have begun.

Since then, Congressional Democrats have not had the votes to pass much-needed legislation in other areas.

But at least President Obama is no longer the compulsive compromiser that he appeared to be during his first term in office. I see this as progress.  As I have argued in the past, on some issues compromise is not an option.  Too much is at stake. 

On the ground,voters are as divided as their elected representatives.  Politically active Democrats have begun to move  left of center while Republican voters have become more conservative. The Pew Research report that I discussed in the first part of this post reveals that a decade ago, only 10% of politically engaged Republicans took a conservative stance on almost all issues. Today, 33% express consistently conservative views. At the other end of the political spectrum, almost forty  percent of committed Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just 8% in 1994. The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or constantly liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. .

“As a result,” Pew reports, “ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished. “Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”. 

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”

                                 Is Polarization A Threat to the Nation?

Most pundits are appalled.
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Medicare, Medicaid, Global Warming and Gun Control– Can Liberals and Conservatives Find Middle Ground? Should They? Part 1

 In a nation divided, “compromise” has become an extraordinarily appealing idea. Weary of the acrimony and endless wrangling, more and more Americans are asking: Why can’t conservative and liberal politicians come together and forge bipartisan solutions to the problems this nation faces?

Keep in mind that it is not only our elected representatives who are having trouble finding common ground. The Pew Research Center’s latest survey of “American Values” reveals that as voters head to the polls this November, their basic beliefs are more polarized than at any point in the past 25 years. In particular, when it comes to the question of government regulation and involvement in our lives, the average Republican has gravitated to the right. In 1987, 62% of Republicans agreed that “the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Now just 40% support this proposition. Democrats haven’t changed their views on this issue: most continue to believe “there, but for fortune . . .”

In Congress, where polarization has led to paralysis, some argue that Republican leaders are responsible for creating gridlock by insisting on “party discipline.” But liberals in Washington also are accused of “dividing the nation.” Even President Obama, who set out to unite the country, has been described as “the most polarizing president ever.” During his third year in office, Gallup reports, “an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year”–though this may say more about the temper of the times than the man himself. Nevertheless, many commentators believe that progressives, like conservatives, need to cede ground. The debate has become too contentious, too “political,” they say. I disagree. There are times when we cannot “split the difference.” Too much is at stake. We must weigh what would be won against what would be lost.

But reporters who have been taught that they must be “fair” and “balanced” often write as if all points of view are equally true. After all, they don’t want to be accused of “bias.” Thus they fall into the trap of what veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse calls “he said, she said” journalism. To them, the “middle ground” seems a safe place– a fair place– to position a story.

This may help explain why so many bloggers and newspaper reporters are calling for “bi-partisan consensus” as they comment on some of the most important issues of the day.

Global Warming

Writing about global warming, Huffington Post senior writer Tom Zeller Jr. recently declared: “Compromise is the necessary first step to tackling the problem. What ordinary Americans really want is for honest brokers on all sides to detoxify and depoliticize the global warming conversation, and then get on with the business of addressing it. That business will necessarily recognize that we all bring different values and interests to the table; that we perceive risks and rewards, costs and benefits differently; and it will identify solutions through thoughtful discussion and that crazy thing called compromise.” [ my emphasis] (Hat tip to David Roberts (Twitter’s “Dr. Grist”) for calling my attention to this post.)

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