The Moderate Fallacy
Before I go, I'll leave you with this slightly preliminary rumination. I hope to elaborate on it in the future, fashion it into a shiny hobby horse, and ride it through the midterm elections. You've been warned.
As the GOP implodes, a story line emerges--well, two, really. They both revolve around the notion that Americans are essentially moderate in political temperment. In the GOP version, the lesson is retrospective: Republicans forgot that Americans are centrist, and are so running aground on the shoals of their own fanatacism. In the Dem version, which is predictive, peddlers of conventional wisdom caution hopeful donkeys not to get too radical if they want to feast on the dissatisfaction of GOP voters.
These twin, complimentary story lines are false. Americans are not philosophically centrist, they're instinctively non-radical. They look at the radical elements of the right and left and aim somewhere in-between, thinking that this is some kind of safe, rational position. They fetishize their "independence" by arguing they're as likely to vote Dem or GOP--proving they haven't the vaguest clue what the political philosophies of right and left are. In the 1930s, one party argued we should have a 90% top income tax bracket, while the other, the "conservative" party, said it should be only 75%. Now one party argues we should invade nonthreatening countries, torture our prisoners, repeal taxes altogether for the rich while privatizing the social safety net. The "liberal" party argues we should maybe not torture, but invasions are okay. Americans, hewing to historical norms, split the difference.
Americans fashion their political instinct from populism, which is America's cultural identity. In the 30s, populism was owned by the Woody Guthrie, collectivist left--this land is your land. Now it is owned by the individualist-loving right--this land is my land, and if you get rich enough, you can by the parcel next door, but until then keep off or I'll shoot you with my automatic Smith and Wesson.
Populism and centrism are rarely related. Populist rhetoric is generally radicalism dressed up as American Gothic. What Grover Norquist seeks to accomplish in this "aw shucks" garb really not less radical than what Emma Goldman preached when she told the poor to seize the bread of the wealthy. Both appealed to average Americans because they were presented as rational acts, even though politically, they were pretty extreme.
The lesson--and the thing I hope to elaborate on--is that Dems need to think differently about elections and governance. To get elected, Dems must evict Republicans as the populist party. Thanks to GOP overreach, this shouldn't be too hard. They don't need to pander to Americans in Bush-lite moderatism, because this just shifts the goalposts further right, compelling Americans to regard increasingly autocratic policies as "centrist." Governing from the left, though, means adopting policies that are truly liberal. Because Americans haven't a clue what a liberal or conservative policy actually is, will only hear the rational populism. Understanding that the path--populism in order to get elected--looks very different from the goal--liberal policies--is critical if the Dems want to create a long-term ruling coalition.
See you next week.