The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Independent of Moderation

Amidst a post-Judd Gregg Obama Administration, the deconstruction of bipartisanship by Washington’s talking heads continues this week, including an op/ed piece in Monday’s New York Times by James Morone, a Professor of Political Science at Brown University, as well as thoughts on Tuesday by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Both men not only accept but also welcome and celebrate sometimes-acrimonious debate as a far more representative environment for democratic government than some sort of genteel tea party or consciousness-raising love fest. Furthermore, both men dismiss calls for a return to some golden age of bipartisan cooperation as based on quixotic daydreams rather than historical fact.

There is obvious Truth in such assertions and their pragmatism is admirable. Yet such viewpoints fail to acknowledge or explain the extreme polarization that has developed within partisan politics in recent decades, a phenomenon so pronounced it is obvious even to causal political observers.

Morone certainly goes too far in suggesting that all bipartisanship is merely an illusion in which the minority Party is “cowed” into submission, either by the majority Party’s sheer dominance or outside events. We have entered a new paradigm in which both Parties view any compromise as weakness and defeat. We have witnessed the birth of a new breed of politician, who favors confrontation over consensus and values halting all progress over conceding a single principle. There is only absolute victory or non-ceasing opposition.

What has given rise to this partisan polarization within the Parties? Paradoxically, I believe it is the simultaneous rise of Independent voters.

Morone is exactly right in suggesting that most successful past Presidents were effective not so much in reaching out to rival politicians but to the American public. They convinced average voters their Party’s ideology was in voters’ best interests and used this as a groundswell of popular support for their positions – the Presidency as bully pulpit.

Every U.S. politician since 1980 has been trying to create their version of Ronald Reagan persuading conservative blue-collar workers to his cause (the so-called Reagan Democrats). Like Reagan, Obama won “the middle” by carrying a majority of Independent voters. However, his electoral success did not translate into any type of political persuasiveness. Obama’s stimulus bill received not a single Republican vote in the House and only three in the Senate.

The difference lies in the fact that Reagan Democrats were Democrats. Although persuadable to vote for the occasional conservative candidate or issue, they still mostly voted along Party lines. This made them a force within the Democratic Party and the more moderate/centrist politicians they helped to elect were the ones who sometimes compromised and helped pass Republican legislation.

Such Party moderates are increasingly rare. Bluedog Democrats still exist in the Midwest and South but the more liberal Democratic leadership views them with great suspicion and often seek to marginalize them. Across the aisle, the concept of a liberal Republican lies buried along with other political dinosaurs and even moderates receive derision as RINOs (i.e. “Republican In Name Only”) from their right-wing colleagues.

Cohen suggests, “Most [contemporary politicians] come from exquisitely gerrymandered districts created by computers that . . . are frequently reliably liberal or conservative. The computer has deleted the middle.”

Cohen is spot-on in identifying the outcome but confuses it as a cause. Those who blame computers for humanity’s problems understand neither human nature nor computers. The computer is only a tool that allows human mendacity, like all forms of human intellect, to proliferate at ever-increasing speeds. Our faults lie not in our pixels but in our politicians.

Whether the rise of extremist cores droves moderates out of the two major Parties or the exit of moderates allowed the Parties to become increasingly extreme without consequences at the polls is probably a self-fulfilling, downward-spiraling feedback loop. However, two results are undeniable.

One is the increased polarization of the Parties, due to the presence of fewer moderates/centrists to check partisan extremes. Second is the rise of Independent voters, who do not vote for political Parties or even necessarily along ideological lines but for individual candidates and issues.

While Independent voters have grown in numbers, they have failed to grow in practical political power. Any number of third Parties exist which reflect some or all moderate values but none have gained national influence.

The closest anyone may have come was Ross Perot’s two Presidential runs in the 1990s. Running as an Independent in 1992, Perot achieved just under nineteen percent of the popular vote nationwide and finished second in two states – Maine and Utah. This was the best showing by a third Party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Yet Perot was strictly a one-man show and his poll numbers rose and fell according his eccentric behavior and his willingness to spend his own money.

Perot tried creating the Reform Party and running again as its candidate in 1996. Unlike his first attempt, he accepted campaign donations this time around. However, the more Perot looked like a typical politician, the more the public tired of him and he finished with only eight percent of the popular vote. What is more, the Reform Party created no national organization. Ex-professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s 1998 election as Governor of Minnesota was its only notable victory.

Without political clout, many Independent voters find their choice of desirable candidates even more limited than when they were the moderate elements within established Parties. As a result, they often wind up choosing “the lesser of two evils” or even voting against a particularly repulsive candidate rather than voting for a commendable one.

Political strategists in both major Parties observed this fact and learned they need not win the hearts and minds of Independents so much as scare or disgust them about the opposition. This has led to the increased use of ever more vitriolic negative campaigning, which in turn contributes to hard feelings and a more partisan tone in Washington.

Independent voters deserve no special blame for the sequence of events that has transpired but what they initiated remains both ironic and highly frustrating. In their desire to escape mindless partisan extremism within the major Parties, their exodus only helped to exacerbate the problem by removing checks on partisanship’s worst excesses and robbing them of the (limited) political influence they once held.

Republicans and Democrats may appear to act on their best behavior to woo Independents but this is the real illusion of modern politics. Despite priding themselves on their autonomy, Independent voters are often those most manipulated by the Parties, using fear-mongering and negative campaigning, to drive them (temporarily) into their respective camps.

Sadly, the chief result of a large bloc of Independent voters has not been to force more centrism into politics but rather to leave the two major Parties more independent from moderation and alternate viewpoints than ever. It has allowed the core constituencies that remain to divorce themselves from restraint, compromise, and – all too often – common sense.

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