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.
“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.
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?
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.”
A 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.