Are there really moderates in America’s political landscape? Of course. Are they a political force to reckon with? Of course not. The reasons people define themselves as “centrists” or “moderates” are very diverse, to the point that it is next to impossible to define an unifying school of thought. The Republicans are increasingly appealing to people with a religious school of thought; as Kevin Phillips is describing in the book I am currently reading, American Theocracy, the GOP finds that it can succeed by strengthening its marriage to only those Americans who think and act religiously, and the further it pushes that envelope, the more secure those political successes become. The GOP’s margins of victory will not be great, but as long as they are good enough, that seems to be satisfactory to its leaders.
The Democrats, for their part, seem to be spending more and more time and effort keeping their winning coalition from the Sixties together — unions, racial minorities, anti-war activists, and feminists. The country and the political debate has moved on, however. There are proportionally fewer union members in America now than there were in the 1890’s; anti-war activists have found their arguments pre-empted by reality and their numbers diminished by a desire to avoid being seen as dirty hippies; racial politics are too complex in today’s world to simply lump everyone who isn’t caucasian into the Democratic camp; and feminisim has, for no good reason I have ever been able to figure out, somehow fallen into disrepute. The Democrats’ failure to adapt to these changes and either rehabilitate or replace these pillars of their coalition has proven responsible for their big-picture failures to recapture the majorities.
It used to be that the Republicans were a coalition of various interest groups with common interests, as were the Democrats. Candidates would run to the ideological edge of their party in primary elections, and then run to the center to appeal to moderates. But now, left out from these equations are people who otherwise agree with the platforms of one or the other party except for a few big issues, people who are repelled by the corruption and vacuity of political debate, and people like me, who are irreligious but libertarian and find themselves marginalized out of the GOP because we are no longer needed to ensure electoral success. “Pragmatism” is not a unifying ideology.
Small wonder, then, that politics seems to be more about the extremes than the middle. Yes, it’s true that Democrats who have enjoyed greater than local success have done so by appealing to centrists who are not part of the traditional Democratic coalition, thus earning the sneering disregard of those liberals who look back on Bill Clinton as some kind of a sell-out. The reason that both parties like to appeal to their extremes rather than their moderates is that a) it’s more fun, b) if they win, they can more easily claim a mandate, and c) where are the moderates going to go, anyway?
I don’t know of many historical models that illustrate where this kind of political polarization goes. I can’t think of a time that both sides of a political discussion simply ignored those whose views were sympathetic to but not in lock step with the ideologically pure arguments offered by one or the other side. All the examples of polarization I can think of end in protracted, bloody, and morally ambiguous struggles: the French, American, and Russian Revolutions, the American or English Civil Wars, the takeover of the Weimar Republic by the Nazis. Not very happy historical precedents, I’m sure you will agree. I’ve heard it said that “history repeats itself, but only in outline form,” or alternatively put that “while history doesn’t truly repeat itself, it rhymes a lot.”
The self-destruction of the Weimar Republic is an illustrative example; not to suggest that the political actors of today are as mean-spirited as the downright evil Nazis were in Germany, but rather because when confronted with the rising power of ideologues, moderates chose to abidcate their power rather than fight to retain what they had. So is the polarization of the body politic in England before its civil war — that conflict had religious, economic, and political ideologies in play.
I don’t buy in to the idea that the 1960’s were some kind of second American Civil War. Yes, there was sharp ideological conflict between different parties, but there seemed to also be a significant moderating force in the middle which buffered the extremes and facilitated generally harmonious (if occasionally acrimonious) co-existence of people with different opinions. That moderate buffer seems to be marginalized out of the political debate today, at least at the national level. I don’t see a ready solution.