Polarization of American Politics


In the week since the No Labels roll out in New York City, there has been no shortage of critics.  That’s being interpreted by most of us involved in the movement as being a good thing.  No Labels is obviously ruffling a few feathers in both ideological extremes.

I’ve already commented upon the critique by Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. in my blog posting of December 16 entitled Finding a Home in the Political Center.  His piece was entitled Where the ‘No Labels’ movement falls short.

Also weighing in from the left, from last weekend in the New York Times, was Frank Rich in an Op-ed entitled The Bipartisanship Racket.

On the right, perspectives were offered by both Rush Limbaugh on his radio show and George F. Will in an Op-ed in the Washington Post entitled The Political Fantasyland of the ‘No Labels’ movement.  It is clear that No Labels has managed to push a few buttons.  I’m glad we are.

The extremes don’t really believe we have a “dysfunctional” government in America.  Each side is only too pleased to be engaged in rugged combat with their opposite ideological enemy, firmly convinced that they are right and that their side will ultimately prevail.  It’s nonsense of course.  In the meantime, serious crises facing the country go unaddressed and Americans lose faith in their government by the day.  This can’t continue.

While No Labels may not in the end solve anything, I think we owe it a chance to work – to change the game enough to break the current deadlock.  If No Labels can indeed mobilize the “silent majority” to actively involve itself in the next few election cycles, there is every reason to believe we can halt the trend toward hyper-partisanship in both parties.  Time will tell, of course.  Count me among those that are willing to make this effort.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In an Op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled Where the ‘No Labels’ movement falls short, columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that the left isn’t nearly as distant from the center of the political spectrum as is the right.  Observing that there were few Republicans in attendance he concludes that “No Labelers can yet be a constructive force if they remind us of how extreme the right has become and help broker an alliance between the center and the left, the only coalition that can realistically stop an ever more zealous brand of conservatism.”

As a distinctly left-leaning Democrat, it is not surprising that Mr. Dionne perceives the gap between the center and the left of the Democratic Party to be minimal and gap between the center and the Republican right to be enormous.  He is right that there were few apparent conservative Republicans in attendance.  I didn’t meet any personally while I did meet a number of self-described liberals.  Additionally the Republicans in attendance, such as myself, were almost uniformly moderate Republicans.  I will also concede that there do seem to be more moderate Democrats in America these days than moderate Republicans and more of them were in attendance on Monday.

From my personal perspective, however, in the center right of the spectrum, there is still exits a considerable gap between where I stand politically and both the Democratic left and the Republican right.  I’d be just as conflicted as a moderate Democrat as I am today as a moderate Republican as I find a Henry Waxman every bit as objectionable as I do a Jim DeMint.

This traces without doubt to my political roots.  I was a Democrat as a kid — I was very much a fan of Lyndon Johnson and I was appalled by Barry Goldwater.  I remember at the age of 10 begging my parents to take me to a Republican headquarters where I could guiltily pick up a Goldwater bumper sticker and cut it up so as to create a new bumper sticker that read “Old Wet Rag”.  My disillusionment with the Democratic Party began with the ascension of the left of the party, including  Robert Kennedy and Ed Muskie.  The nomination of George McGovern in 1972 was the final straw for me and I registered as a Republican in 1972 and voted for Richard Nixon.  An activist even then, I became the “Young Voters for the President” Chairman on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio that year.  I have never since been able to trust the Democratic Party and I remain highly distrustful of the Democratic Party’s extraordinarily influential and left-leaning activist groups (labor, peace, and environmental to name a few).

The fact is that I don’t believe I’ve shifted a great deal politically in my life time.  I was then and am still in the relative center of the spectrum.  As the Republican Party began its shift to the right with Ronald Reagan, I have had a harder and harder time remaining a Republican.  And yes, in many ways I suppose I am a classic Republican In Name Only (RINO), still hoping that sanity will prevail and that the pragmatically conservative Republican Party that I first joined will re-emerge.

In the meantime, I have to find a home in the center and today No Labels is offering me just such a home.  As I expressed in my blog post on Tuesday, it was so refreshing on Monday at the No Labels kickoff to be surrounded by people who thought almost exactly as I did.

And so Mr. Dionne, however you care to label it, No Labels can be a place where centrists can come together to discuss reasonable solutions in the middle of the spectrum and effectively work to support candidates who are willing to craft solutions as unpopular with the far left as the far right.

I attended the No Labels kickoff yesterday in New York City.  Stories on the event can be found in both the Washington Post (here and here) and the New York Times – the NY Times piece is more of a story on conference participant Michael Bloomberg.

It is hard to express how great the experience was for me.  The crowd was enthusiastic and the speakers almost uniformly excellent.  It was also gratifying to again be around people again with whom I felt I was in sync.  Although I’m still a registered Republican, most Republicans that I meet are far more conservative than I am.  That means that in a group of Republicans I often don’t feel very “at home” for while I agree with the Republican Party on many issues, I am finding it harder and harder to agree with the party a host of others.  I also have particular problems with the party’s apparent 2+ year “no compromise” strategy.  No compromise = Dysfunctional government.  As a country we must agree to talk and compromise.  It is the only way forward.

In the coming days, I hope I can provide links to the remarks of several of yesterday’s speakers, including New York Times columnist David Brooks. Congressmen Bob Inglis’ remarks were also especially relevant and poignant as were those of Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ.  Additionally, the panel discussion led by Mika Brzezinski was particularly good.  The panel included Joe Scarborough, Senator Evan Bayh, Senator Joe Manchin and David Gergen.

In closing, let me repeat the comments that I made today to a Washington Post story entitled Can ‘No Labels’ change the tone in Washington?:

I am writing this from New York City where I yesterday attended the No Labels kickoff as a “Citizen Leader”. I have lived in Washington DC since 1987. In my 23 years in Washington I have seen the political system cease to work. I have also seen my Republican Party drift further and further to the right and the Democratic Party remain largely under the control of its liberal wing and its host of special interest groups. Neither side is is willing to compromise and the last three elections have shown an electorate punishing the party in control, yet the two parties continue to miss the point.

No Labels as a collection of mostly moderate Democrats, Republicans and Independents can change the game by applying pressure from the center of the spectrum, mostly in influencing primary elections but also in mobilizing support for candidates who take courageous stands. We can also influence redistricting processes in the states, which has the potential to enormously impact the ability of both parties to maintain their duopoly.

I will be actively involved with No Labels in Washington DC, starting with hosting a Meet Up on January 4. DC area voters interested in learning more and go to meetup.com/no labels for more information.

Please join our movement to move the country not left or right, but forward. Help end the hyper-partisan dysfunction.

An Op-ed in today’s Washington Post offers an example of a mis-guided argument that predictably emanates from the extremes of the partisan spectrum following an election, usually from the party and extreme ideology that has suffered  a big loss.  Today’s example is offered by Michael Lerner in a piece entitled Save Obama’s presidency by challenging him on the left.  Mr. Lerner argues that Obama’s problem is that he hasn’t been “progressive” enough and that it may be necessary to have a Democratic primary challenger from the left in order to force Obama to the left in order to win in 2012.  To those of us in the center of the spectrum, this is utter nonsense.

I’ve rarely witnessed a more clear voter rejection of a party in power, and an ideology, than what occurred in the U.S. in November.  Democrats got shellacked because they were perceived by the electorate as taking the country too far left — in the direction of higher taxes and more government.  That clearly isn’t popular in this country.  Notice I said perceived.  The Republicans did a very good job of painting President Obama and the Democrats into this corner, often inaccurately, but the party itself and its progressive wing aided and abetted.  Nancy Pelosi, Queen of the California’s extremely liberal congressional delegation, was the perfectly wrong choice to be the face of the party.  She is ‘nails on a chalkboard’ to much of America.  In addition, Democrats have puzzled over why the business community and independents supported Republicans as strongly as they did in the election.   Much of the standard Democrat election rhetoric is about class struggle, the little guy against the evil corporate behemoth.  That may sit well with the base of the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t sit well with the majority of Americans.  No, what President Obama and the Democrats need to do for the next two years is appear to the American electorate as the rational, sane and relatively centrist alternative to Republican ideological excess. Democrats’ clearest path to control and the re-election of President Obama is moderation — a la Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were also constrained by Congresses not in their control and each of whom were re-elected handily.

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a great mistake in their apparent conclusion that it was their conservative ideology that won them election in November.  The reason the electorate voted for them in November was because they weren’t Democrats – they were the “other”, the alternative party.  This was exactly the reason that Democrats, including Obama, won in 2008 — because they were the “other”, the alternative option to George Bush and the Republicans.  These last two elections haven’t been about the electorate supporting a party so much as completely repudiating the party in power.

Thus, the last thing Democrats need to do is up the stakes and offer the electorate a clear picture of a party controlled by left wing ideologues.  Let Republicans hang themselves on their own petard — by viewing that it was their ideology that won them this last election.  The party that grabs the center, that demonstrates to America that it is willing to compromise and to find rational solutions in the middle will be the choice of an electorate that can once again be expected to vote to reject an ideological extreme.

It is my view that 2012 is shaping up as an election that Democrats should win, but it is distinctly losable.  Just consult with Mr. Lerner.  He has the strategy for losing all figured out.

Expect to hear a lot from me in the coming weeks about No Labels.  A posting on this weblog in mid-October introduced readers to the group.  To refresh, No Labels is a grassroots organization of people who believe we should “Put Labels Aside” and “Do What’s Best for America”.  We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.  I will be attending the national kickoff for No Labels in New York City on December 13 and will make an effort to post on the event in real time from New York.

In the last few weeks there has been growing national publicity about No Labels, including an excellent Op-ed in this mornings Washington Post by William A. Galston and David Frum entitled A no labels solution to Washington gridlock.  I recommend the piece.

Also, for those of you in Washington, DC, I am hosting a Meet Up on January 4, 2010 (at a location still to be determined) to meet and discuss No Labels.  We’ll talk about the December 13 National No Labels Kickoff in NYC and what those of us in DC can do to advance the No Labels agenda.  You can sign up for the Washington DC event here.

For those of you in other parts of the country, there are Meets Up planned in early January in a number of locales.  See the No Labels website for details.

It seems as good a time as any to reflect briefly on the recent election and the myths that have developed as to the reasons for the Democrats’ “shellacking”.

Among Democrats of the liberal variety, I’m seeing all too many who fault the President and Democrats for not going far enough:  there should have been a larger stimulus; we shouldn’t have compromised on health care; and “cap and trade” was the right thing to do.  And yes, Nancy Pelosi was brilliant and did nothing wrong.

I personally believe that the public was never overwhelmingly against any of these three major Democratic initiatives.   With the exception of cap and trade, which was always in my opinion the coward’s way out and not the best means to address climate change, the other two initiatives were necessary.  However, both of these necessary initiatives, stimulus and health care reform, were very poorly executed and that poor execution left a sour taste with people – a sour taste that was remembered on election day.  The public was simply exhausted and disgusted by the never-ending debate of a health care bill where no one, least not the President, seemed in charge.  As for the stimulus, I think people remembered how blatantly the Democratic congressional leadership administered favors to political constituencies rather than just executing a bill that got the biggest bang for the buck.

More simply put, the process destroyed the products.  Yet my fundamental point is that the electorate’s massive negative reaction in just-concluded election was not about any one of the above things.  It was, however, about a cumulative impression of one-party dominated processes that involved some really ugly sausage making.  That in turn left a cumulative impression with much of the electorate that the country was left with legislation that nobody understood, cost a whole lot of money, and massively increased the role of government in our lives.  And, perhaps most importantly, the economy still sucked.

In the midst of gigantic collective anxiety about the economy, the perception of a massive government expansion as being the cure for what ailed the country did not work.  In fact it raised the reddest of flags to an insecure nation, an insecure “center-right” nation.

So what it appears that Democrats intend to do to remedy things in the next Congress is to entrust the party’s message going forward to none other than the folks who so badly bungled things in the last two years:  Obama, Pelosi and Reed.  I think this a huge mistake for Democrats.  A softer and more “centrist” face would be much more effective in opposing the almost certain Republican-dominated policy folly that’s coming — that folly being the ultra conservative notion that by shrinking the government and lowering taxes we can solve all of the country’s problems.  We can’t.  Yet with the Democrat’s proposed messengers, the debate will polarize into  “More Government” versus “No Government”.  This is so unnecessary.   While I see no signs that Republicans will amend their “no government message, the Democrats can still alter their message, but they will need new messengers in the both the House and Senate to accomplish this.

I can only hope Democrats in Congress will yet decide that new leadership is required in the next Congress.   Let Democrats lose the fallacious belief that party hasn’t been liberal enough.  The party needs to recognize that America isn’t ready for a European-style social democracy.  So go ahead and pursue “liberal” policies – that is the essence of the Democratic Party — but do so incrementally.   And for now, occupy the center ground that’s been abandoned by the Republicans.

In closing let me observe that while each party is right to try to move the country in the direction it thinks the country should go, the problem arises when either party becomes too impatient and wants to change the status quo overnight.  American’s don’t like radical change and will resist what they perceive efforts to legislate such radical change (the November elections).  The solution is a slow but steady movement firmly rooted in the “center” ground.  I’m convinced it would be a winning strategy for any party that chooses to adopt it.  Given that Republicans appear to believe that they now have a mandate for radical change, the obvious path for Democrats is to learn from the last two years and adopt a more moderate path – a path that recognizes its priorities but also one that can resonate with a centrist America.

Of a number of great Op-Eds since the election, I am posting three that I believe are particularly important to read.  They are:  David Broder’s Goals worth fighting for in the Washington Post on November 4, 2010;  Steven Pearlstein’s Leadership challenge: Take voters’ mixed messages and deal, also in the November 4 Washington Post; and Charles Blow’s The Great American Cleaving in the New York Times on November 5, 2010.

While all are important , the last two address the theme expressed in my posting on this weblog entitled Winning is Everything.  Steven Pearlstein is right that this country can’t move forward without compromise and that without it the country will suffer continuing economic decline.  That one party apparently decided two years ago to refuse to compromise believing, apparently successfully, that the tactic would enable them to retake Congress is concerning for its implications.  Convinced it’s a sound strategy for Republicans, they are likely to carry that strategy forward in the next session of Congress.  Second, this no-compromise strategy is a potential blueprint for Democrat Party strategy in the House for the next two years.

Charles Blow ends his piece with these words:  “That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation.”  The author is absolutely right.  We are in deep trouble as it means nothing can happen in this country to address our daunting problems until one party takes complete control.  Maybe that’s on the way if the Republican’s chief goal is defeating Obama in two years.  I’ve been a lifelong Republican but am dismayed at the course the party is taking; it is very dangerous.

The implications on the nation’s ability to govern itself are staggering.  I must conclude that indeed, the fabric of the nation is being ripped apart.

Robert J. Samuelson writes an Op-Ed in this morning’s Washington Post on the polarization of the American political system.  The piece is entitled Politics has lost its center of balance (online it is entitled “The dysfunction of American politics”).  Indeed it has.  Samuelson cites four reasons:

First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist “bases” for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans’ positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often “too liberal.”

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.

Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Samuelson and I recommend reading the piece.

I’ve addressed my concern with over-identification with political party a number of times on this blog over the years.   One such posting was entitled The Negative Consequences of Identification With Political Party.
It’s a big problem. Now comes along a group, about which I’m still seeking additional information, called No Labels. I’m intrigued. Could this be a MoveOn for Americans tired of partisan politics and interested in solutions?
Watch this YouTube video and let me know what you think.

There was a very informative article by Jon Cohen and Dan Balz in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled Beyond the tea party: What Americans really think of government.  The article dissects and discusses a new study by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.  My takeaways from the story are several.  First, that there is a vast gap in the perceptions of Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans toward the role of government.  A graphic that I found interesting in this regard from the story is one comparing the views of various groups (Liberal Democrats to Tea Party strong supporters) toward Government Services and whether they favored “Fewer services/lower taxes” or “More services/higher taxes”.

What’s revealed in the graphic is a pretty sharp partisan split.  That’s too bad for America, especially as the two parties appear to listen more ardently to their respective fringes.  Those of us in the middle who want significant, but limited, government aren’t represented well by either party in today’s America.  It is all or nothing.

A second takeaway from the story is the survey’s revelation that Americans give their government a relatively low report card.  The story discusses this in much more detail.

Finally, I was interested but not surprised to learn that Americans really don’t understand the complexity of issues facing this country, for instance toward balancing the federal budget.  Here’s an excerpt from the article:

One challenge for policymakers is that half the country thinks the federal government can balance its budget by simply cutting wasteful spending. In fact, eliminating waste in the budget would do very little to bring down the size of the deficit. Nearly as many say they think some useful programs will have to go to bring the deficit under control, but the number saying so has slipped since the mid-1990s.

The bottom line is Americans really don’t understand the scale of the problem, suggesting that politicians need to start explaining the problem to the public rather than simply pointing their partisan fingers at the other party.

As one who believes strongly in the need for a viable third party in this country to challenge the existing two party duopoly, I note that the article also observed that “just over half” of survey respondents said that “government in Washington [would] work better” if electoral laws were eased “to make it easier for third parties to compete with Democrats and Republicans.”

For those interested, Dan Balz also penned another piece in Sunday‘s Washington Post based on the above-referenced survey.  For those wanting to read more, it is entitled Tea Party fuels GOP midterm enthusiasm, action.