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.

“It’s a poisonous potion,” writes Bloomberg’s Mark Silva:

“Increasing Ideological Uniformity.

“Partisan Animosity.

“Stir it up:  and what you have is ‘Political Polarization.’

“The antipathy cuts both ways” Silva adds.

On that last point he is right.  As Pew points out, the share of Republicans who have very unfavorable opinions of the Democratic Party has more than doubled over the past 20 years – from 17 percent to 43 percent. Similarly, the share of Democrats with very negative opinions of the GOP also has more than doubled – from 16 percent to 38 percent. . .

“There are actually people who view the other political party as a ‘threat to the nation’s well-being’” Pew notes, “with 27 percent of Democrats saying this of the Republican Party, and 36 percent of Republicans saying this of the Democrats. Those numbers, too, have essentially doubled during the past two decades.”

“Pew calls it ‘a rising tide of mutual antipathy,’” Silva observes.

Let me be clear: lLke Silva, I too, abhor the extremes where sheer anger replaces reason.. (I cringe whenever I hear a good friend say that Dick Cheney should be “put up against a wall and shot.” He says this quite often.)

But I would point out that arch-conservatives seem much angrier than liberal Democrats. This is why Republicans come out to vote, particularly in mid-term elections, in much larger numbers. Rage sends them to the polls.

What I find most disturbing is that these conservatives seem to loathe, not just liberals, but anyone who they view as “Other”:  People who are dark-skinned, poor, foreign, gay, or a feminist who stands up for a women’s rights is  deemed “Not Us.”  This mixture of xenophobia, racism, homophobia and misogyny is what I find truly frightening.

The Disengaged Center –Nearly 40% Of All Americans

Most importantly, what  Silva ignores is that while committed Republicans have headed further right, and committed Democrats have shifted to the left, only 61% of Americans are committed to either party.

The Pew poll reveals that fully 39% belong to an uncommitted center: “Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard.

Those in the center are quieter, less likely to vote, and less likely to make political contributions. These are the people who say “I just don’t pay much attention to politics.” Or, “I’ve given up on politics and politicians.”

But according to Pew, while many in the center do not vote, they do have opinions. “These centrists are not moderates. Those in the center hold strong views on various issues,” the Pew report explains. “The difference is that they are not consistently liberal or conservative.” An over-riding ideology does not determine all of their decisions.

For example, some favor gun control, but are opposed to health care reform. On immigration, their views are mixed. Pew’s research reveals that “all told, 37% of non-ideological Americans support drastic changes in America’s immigration policies.”  Some favor deportation of all unauthorized immigrants while others support immediate citizenship if certain conditions are met.”

Because they are not blinded by a single ideology, their minds are open to listening to rational arguments on various issues. This is why we need them at the polls.

On this point, I am hopeful. As conservatives move further and further to the extreme right, more and more Americans are becoming alarmed. As a result, we may well see more disengaged, disaffected, and discouraged citizens beginning to pay attention to politics.


This is exactly what happened Tuesday, in Mississippi, where veteran Republican Senator Thad Cochran beat back a challenge by State Senator Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite.

On June 3, Cochran, an establishment Republican who has served in the Senate for 24 years, lost the Republican Senate primary to Chris McDaniel, a former talk radio host and Tea Party–backed state senator,

Because neither won 50 percent of the vote. the race went into a runoff. At that point, most observers assumed that Cochran would lose.  With his intense support from passionate Republicans, combined with wide backing from national Tea Party groups, McDaniel was the favorite.

But in the last three weeks of the race, Cochran began to reach out to black voters. He was betting that African-Ameican Democrats might well come out to vote against McDaniel, who is  well known for his New Confederate views. (A Southern reactionary, McDaniel laments how the country has changed, since the days before civil rights legislation passed. He misses the “Old South”.) On his radio talk show, he also had made     racist and sexist remarks that I find too offensive to repeat.

Cochran’s strategy proved shrewd. In the run-off, African-American turnout in the 24 counties with a black population of 50 percent or more was up almost 40 percent from the primary.

Make no mistake: Cochran is a conservative Mississippi Republican. Black Democrats know this. But as one voter said: “One of the other white men is going to get in there. We need to choose.”  By turning out for Cochran these liberals made sure that a rabid, racist conservative would not have a vote in Congress.

You might wonder: How could Democrats vote in a Republican runoff? In Mississippi, which does not register by party affiliation, any registered voter can vote in the Republican runoff election as long they did not vote in the Democratic primary during the first round of balloting on June 3.

Most African-Americans didn’t bother to vote for Travis Childers, the winner of the Democratic primary.  They didn’t think he stood a chance. Thus, they were free to cast a ballot for Cochran.

At Cochran’s satellite office in Hattiesburg, Stacy Ahua, 25, a black field organizer, managing a get-out-the-vote operation explained Cochran’s strategy to the Washington Post: “Some of our people forgot to come out for that first vote and we’ve really tried to get things moving. I think everybody now understands the stakes, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, Catholic or Baptist.”

Exactly. This is what right-wing extremists are now doing nationwide: defining what is at  stake. I thank them.

No surprise, McDaniel’s supporters are livid that African Americans sealed their candidate’s defeat. Already, they are talking about a write-in campaign on his behalf. This  could split the Republican vote.

At the same time, success may persuade African Americans and other Mississippi liberals  to turn out for the mid-term elections. And,  if there is no write-in campaign,  right wingers who are furious at Cochran may refuse to vote. In other words,  Travis Childers might stand a chance. He  is a conservative Democrat, but still the GOP would have one less seat in the Senate.

Convincing Americans That It’s Worth Taking the Time to Vote: The Argument for Partisanship

Writing in the American Prospect, Paul Starr recently made the argument that “if Democrats are going to convince their supporters it is worth the trouble to vote . . . . they need to advocate policies that make as loud and stark a contrast as possible with those of the Republicans. Obama’s belated emphasis on raising the minimum wage and increasing overtime pay are good examples of the approach. Taxing the 1 percent to finance broadly distributed benefits also fits this description. . .

“Such policies will predictably be described as class warfare,” Starr acknowledges. “But . . . the objective is actually to get back to an income distribution more like the level that prevailed in the Eisenhower administration. The entire political and legal spectrum has been moved so far to the right that what used to be centrist only seems populist.”

But in recent years, the zeitgeist has turned. .Both the issues and the candidates are more sharply defined than in the past. As a result, Starr notes, “voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 elections returned to levels America hadn’t seen in 40 years. Fox News and MSNBC stir up the emotions not just of their devoted viewers, but of those who abhor them; liberals and conservatives alike may be more inclined to vote.

In an earlier piece Star argued: “Democracy needs passion and partisanship provides passion.” Yes.

    In Some Cases Compromise Is Not Possible

But do we really want “passionate” partisan representatives in Congress? Don’t’ we want to elect politicians who will compromise with each other?

Not necessarily.

On the face of it “compromise” sounds eminently reasonable, and very often, it is appropriate. When it comes to negotiating tax rates, we may be able to “split the difference’—at least in some cases.

For example: until very recently, the Federal government taxed estates over $1 million. Now the IRS collects a tax only if the estate exceeds $5 million. (In 2013 this change cost us roughly $13 billion in government revenues.) Some conservatives would like to abolish the tax altogether; liberals would be inclined to go back to taxing amounts over $1 million. I could see both sides reaching middle ground by agreeing to tax estates over, say, $2.5 million.

But sometimes we can’t meet in the middle. Some values just are not negotiable.

Below, a short list of issues where Republicans and Democrats disagree, and I would argue, compromise is not possible.

Gun control:  When as are talking about the slaughter of innocents, we cannot “split the difference” with the NRA. There is no reason for civilians to own automatic and semi-automatic weapons. And no one should be able to buy a firearm of any kind without a thorough background check.

— Medicaid Expansion: The right to healthcare is a universal right, not a matter of states’ rights. The notion that poor adults should have access to medical care in some states, but not in others, is untenable. Once again, what is at issue here is not money, but blood.

 Immigration reform: Do we really want to send Honduran 15-year-olds back to a homeland where they are likely to be maimed, killed, or enslaved by a gang?  (See part 2 of this post)  We must offer asylum to those who are at risk, just as, over the years, we offered protection to at least some European Jews (far too few), as well as some Russian dissidents. Skin color or ethnicity should not affect that decision.

As for children who were brought here by undocumented parents years ago, the idea of sending them back to a country that they don’t know is impossibly cruel. Finally children who grew up here should not be barred from attending college because they are labeled “illegals.” We need more educated workers.

Raising the Minimum Wage:  We know that children in the U.S. go to bed hungry because a parent cannot earn enough to feed them. Food stamps run out before the end of the month. And, if we  lift the minimum wage, we can assuage union fears that more immigrants will depress the average American’s paycheck.

Global warming: On this topic right-wingers are not only a threat to the nation, they’re a threat to the globe. Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say there is solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades, a figure that has changed little in the past few years.  Yet conservatives have managed to block action.

Nevertheless we should thank right-wingers for highlighting the issues. Voters are no longer simply talking about candidates’ personalities. We are facing basic differences in what we think is “right” and “wrong.”

Pew Research Center survey of “American Values” reveals that when it comes to rock-bottom moral questions, liberals and conservatives simply don’t agree. In particular, Pew reports, when Republicans are asked about government regulation and involvement in our lives, they are more adamant than ever before: Individual rights should be paramount; the government should not interfere.

By contrast, progressives tend to believe that government has a responsibility to regulate with an eye to the “common good”–and to tax and spend with the goal of creating a fairer, more egalitarian society.

Ultimately, their positions illustrate the tension between two political goals: freedom and equality. Conservatives favor freedom; liberals are more concerned about equality.  The reason we have two parties is so that voters can choose.

Can’t we have both freedom and equality? Of course–but in some cases there is a conflict between individual rights and what is best for society as a whole. Then, voters must decide.

On such critical questions, I would argue that we are not looking for a mid-point between “right” and “wrong.”  Either we expand Medicaid for everyone—including childless adults–or we don’t.

In a democracy, our elected representatives should reflect what the majority of Americans think is truly just—including the 40% who are not card-carrying conservatives or liberals.

And in fact, recent polls suggest that most U.S. citizens do have clear views on these issues. The majority favor stricter gun control laws;  think that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in this country and eventually apply for citizenship; support a proposal requiring companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming even if it means higher utility bills; believe that we should raise the minimum wage  from $7.25 to $10.10–or higher and support Medicaid expansion 

Why then is Congress gridlocked on these questions? Because only a minority of Americans vote , particularly in midterm elections that decide the fate of so many Senators and Representatives.  Thus Congress reflects the beliefs of some Democrats and Republicans at each end of the political spectrum, but not the will of the majority.





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

  1. Maggie:

    “As I have argued in the past, on some issues compromise is not an option. Too much is at stake.”

    What a fabulous quote from you. I will always treasure it and read it back to you on a regular basis. So you are an ideologue and reactionary on “some” items that are “important” to you. So are the rest of us. We have more in common than I thought. A willingness to fight to the end for what we really believe in. Praise the Lord.


  2. Charles–

    This are not issues that are “important to me.”

    These are issues that are important, not just to me, but to all of us, because what is at stake is not money, but blood.

    If we don’t control guns, school-room shoot-outs will continue, and children will be slaughtered.
    (Other countries also have to deal with mad men, but in other developed countries these shoot-outs are not commonplace events. It is far, far harder for mentally ill (or simply very angry) citizens to buy guns and ammunition.

    Global warming is an issue where ultra-conservatives are simply denying science and scientific research. They seem to think that their personal opinions trump hard facts. We are already beginning to see the cost on this globe–and as the planet warms, food will become scarcer, and we’ll see more terribly destructive storms and floods.

    Charles, I could go on. But I sense that you are not really interested in the facts. You have your ideology, which drives your opinions–and closes your mind to reasoned arguments.

  3. run 75441

    Indeed .
    I actually had to delete one comment.– the first time in more than a year.
    A very ugly racist diatribe by a guy who lives in Arizona.
    (He doesn’t like Mexicans)

    • Maggie:

      Surprising my daughters in-laws are from AZ and similar in regard although very nice people. I close my ears to maintain peace.

    • Human beings are not perfect. Many of us are deeply flawed.

      I don’t condone racism, but I wouldn’t turn my back on someone for uttering a racist remark.

      I might say something, though.

      • Panacea–

        I also wouldn’t turn my back on someone who uttered a racist remark. (I admire the fact that you would consider saying something.)

        But if a relative was consistently racist–over a period of years– I would have a hard time thinking of him or her as
        a kind or nice person.

  4. Maggie:

    I wish I shared your apparent optimism that today’s polarization is going to mostly be resolved in a way that is positive. It may be true that the public has eventually seen the wisdom in things like Social Security, Medicare, workplace safety, consumer protections and regulating pollution, but we’re living in different times and have been since the 1970s. The post-war era of broad prosperity has been replaced by narrow prosperity for the wealthy few. The bottom 90% have simply not shared in the additional prosperity they have helped produce.

    The balance of power has shifted quite a bit. Workers have little power. Consumers have power, but mostly aren’t able to wield it. Our democracy has been co-opted by moneyed interests that have powerful lobbyists and big-money donors. The prospect of reforming the financing of political campaigns has been destroyed by so-called “conservatives” on the Supreme Court. So moneyed interests rule.

    The dysfunction we’re seeing in Congress is unfortunately the new normal and there is a vast campaign of deliberate deception (e.g., Betsy McCaughey and both Hillarycare and Obamacare) that is unlikely to be undone or slowed down. We have fact-checking organizations and the ability to check facts easily on the internet and yet the public is very misinformed on a range of issues. As an example, a 2013 poll showed that only 6% of the public correctly responded that the federal deficit was declining. In fact, it was declining at the fastest rate since the demobilization following WW2. Worse yet, recent studies have shown that when ideologues are presented with facts to correct their misconceptions, those ideologues believe those falsehoods more fiercely than before.

    So, moneyed interests are pretty much guaranteed to have increasing power, polarization is pretty much guaranteed to worsen, and dysfunction in Washington will continue unless one party or the other controls the House, the Senate and the White House, which seems highly unlikely anytime soon. If people could just vote based on good information, one could have some hope for a way out, but even that seems improbable given that there is so much deliberate deception, especially on the right, and given that exposing people to the truth doesn’t actually help.

    It sucks being a realist these days.

    • jon–

      What you are missing is the demographic changes that will change the political rules.

      You can see the beginning of the change in Obama’s two victories. In each case, less than 50% of white voters voted for him.

      This is the first time in U.S. history that a president was elected even though he got less than 50% of the white vote.

      African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and new immigrants pushed him over the top. Women and younger voters of all race played a role.

      Most of them were not wealthy–note that the minorities made the difference on the margin, and the vast majority were not wealthy

      Yes, today corporate lobbyists have a huge influence in Congress.

      Nevertheless, in his first term Obama had enough votes in Congress to pass Obamacare.

      And, as it turns out, it does not represent a huge windfall for insurers. Note that most big for-profit insurers are not participating the
      Exchanges– the new rules and regs make it very difficult for them to make the profits they want.

      See my post: ” ”

      However much lobbyists and large corporations spend, they cannot buy the votes of low-income and middle-income minorities, gays and women concerned bout
      their rights (equal pay, and maintaining control over their bodies.)

      Analysis shows that unlike low-income white, low-income African Americans, Asians and Latinos are more likely to vote in their own self-interest.
      This means they vote in favor of redistributing income. Low-income and middle-income whites, by contrast, tend to identify with wealthy white
      Americans, and vote against their own self interest and in favor of cutting taxes for the wealthy, etc. in hopes that some day they, too will
      be wealthy (which will happen only if they win the lottery).

      Minorities tend to be more skeptical about wealthy corporations, for obvious reasons.

      The big news is that those who are most skeptical about the moneyed interests running the country are now coming out to vote

      As more Latino’s vote in certain places, Red states will become Blue states.

      AS African-Americans learn how much power their vote has (as they did in Mississippi) they are more and more likely to turn out.

      Assuming Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, Bill Clinton will help her bring out a record number of black voters as well as young liberals of all races, and women.

      This is not going to happen overnight. But Obama’s election and re-election, combined with passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act marked a
      turning point. The 2000 election was as important in 1980–but 1980 signaled a turn to the right, 2000 marked a turn to the left.

      We now have people like Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker in Congress.

      Imagine 2016 with Hillary in the White House, Nancy Pelosi majority leader of the House, and Warren either a strong figure in the Senate or in the
      administration (Secretary of the Treasury)? Folks on Wall Street would freak.

      I’ve been watching politics since the late 60s and I’m more optimistic now than I have been in decades.

      • I’m well aware of the demographic shift and I suspect this will give Democrats an edge for the White House for some time to come. But the House and Senate are a different matter (Nate Silver gives the nod to Republicans for control of the Senate this November). And all Republicans really need is control of the House in order to obstruct progress.

        As for the influence of moneyed interests, people are easily swayed by the ads this money buys. As Charles Blow reported in the NY Times yesterday:

        “Lauren Windsor reported last month in The Nation that Charles and David Koch held their annual summer seminar for “a gang of the world’s richest people,” and, according to a source who attended the conference, ‘the explicit goal was to raise $500 million to take the Senate in the 2014 midterms and another $500 million ‘to make sure Hillary Clinton is never president.’ This continues a disturbing trend in which the wealthy tilt right in the fight against the rest. According to a report last month from the Center for Responsive Politics, ‘So far this cycle, the top 20 deep-pocketed contributors to the joint committees are all giving to conservatives. In contrast, during the 2012 cycle four of the top five donors to [joint fund-raising committees] were giving to Democrats.’”

        In my opinion, money often trumps the self-interest of voters – because it convinces people to act against their own interests – especially when the people spending that money are ruthless, cynical and dishonest.

  5. Agree with Maggie’s emphasis on demographic realities all but assuring a Hillary victory. The far right just doesn’t accept demographic realities of the current US. They are very freightened that they have “lost their old white country” They actually pine for the good old days of white male majority and supremacy. But it will not happen.

    The current border crisis is an ugly example and metaphor for demographic realities becoming more manifest and contentious

    • Dr. Rick–


      Yes, the demographics are baked into the cake. Of course, this doesn’t have to be seen as bad news. The country could become a “beautiful mosaic”.
      And in the long run, I think inter-marriage will be the answer (and the only answer) to racism.

      Moreover, as minorities realize that, together, they form a majority, they are more likely to work together to achieve greater equality for all. It’s interesting that Asians
      have supported Obama. They don’t see him as “other” (a black man) ; they see him as someone who is moving the country forward. (Asians have been quick to sign up for Obamacare, particularly in California.