Friday, July 08, 2005

The vacuum in the center -- but then is bipartisanship possible?

I wanted to mention an interesting article on centrism and "the new bipartisanship" at TNR. Unfortunately, as is the case with Jonathan Chait's article on ideas and politics, it's only available by subscription, but I'll try to give you the gist of it here:

The author, Kal Raustiala, observes, by way of Norm Ornstein, that "political polarization is at a 50-year high in Congress," as "only 8 percent of the House can be considered centrist today, compared to 33 percent in 1955". The conventional wisdom, of course, is that this dearth of centrists in Congress has damaged (or even killed) bipartisanship and fostered a political climate of extremism, but Raustiala makes the case that bipartisanship isn't dead, it's just different. The new bipartisanship isn't centrist; rather, it's a union of the extremes of left and right along a circular (as opposed to linear) spectrum. For a terrible analogy (and I don't mean to pull a Durbin here), think Hitler and Stalin, two variants of totalitarian rule, setting aside their differences to find common ground against the democratic middle.

The primary example of this very-strange-bedfellow bipartisanship is the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which "sailed through Congress two years ago with unanimous bipartisan support" and was later signed into law by President Bush, but there have been numerous other examples:

The PREA is an important story, one in which an appalling problem is finally addressed by Congress. But it is also part of a trend. In recent months, for example, the unusual convergence of the religious right and environmentalists has received increasing attention. "Creation care" is the new phrase du jour for environmentally minded Christians who think there is a scriptural duty to protect the Earth and all its inhabitants. Christian conservatives have also aligned with the left to campaign against the international sex trafficking trade. Conservatives are increasingly in line with liberals on the need to aggressively challenge and prevent religious and racial persecution in places like Darfur. And perhaps most significantly, national security hawks and climate change advocates are suddenly on the same page with regard to fossil fuel consumption--since, in addition to creating greenhouse gases, American consumption of oil also enriches Saudi Arabia, birthplace of fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers.

Indeed, these examples "[illustrate] an important fact about bipartisanship in polarized times":

The absence of centrists in Congress certainly fosters conflict rather than cooperation on many, probably most, issues. But there are also issues where the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans can find common ground. To be sure, that politics makes strange bedfellows is not news. What is news is that the rising power of the religious right is leading to some unexpected victories for progressive causes. Deep political polarization makes traditional centrist bipartisanship treacherous. But, paradoxically, it can also produce unexpected cooperation between the core of the right and the core of the left. In other words, bipartisanship isn't dead; it has simply abandoned the political center for issues where it was once nowhere to be seen.

What do we think of this? There's no doubt that Raustiala is right that gerrymandering has pushed centrists out of Congress, polarizing the divide between left and right. The "Gang of 14" in the Senate may have temporarily staved off the nuclear option (and the victory of at least the right extreme), but that compromise was the exception, not the rule, and already it shows signs of falling apart.

Yet I don't think the center can be written off so easily, and these convenient marriages of the far left and the far right shouldn't necessarily be lauded as milestones of bipartisanship, or at least as examples of a sustainable bipartisanship that avoids the center entirely. That would be like seeing the "No" vote in France in the recent referendum on constitutional ratification was a victory for bipartisanship. Was it? No. It was a case of the far left and the far right, who hate each other, finding common cause against the middle -- each side totally self-interested, with bipartisanship of little concern in the long run.

Sure, I realize that there's more collegiality when, say, Sen. Brownback and Sen. Kennedy agree to set aside their other differences to pursue bipartisanship on a given issue, but I'm not sure that this neo-bipartisanship can hold except in those rare cases where left-wing self-interest meets right-wing self-interest. The common good may be served, in ad hoc fashion, when these two self-interests forge a temporary alliance, but, in the long run, the common good is best-served by a strong center that looks beyond narrow partisanship toward what is truly good for America.

With respect to American politics, I find myself more or less on the "left" of that "center" that stretches across the middle of the spectrum, and, as a self-described liberal, I certainly don't mean to suggest that liberals, for example, abandon their core principles for the sake of sheer pragmatism. However, I do think that liberals need to balance a commitment to core principles with the demands of a more pragmatic politics geared towards actual results. For Democrats, this means resisting the ideological left (those who have no interest in getting anything done) in order to seek compromise with independents and moderate Republicans willing to move beyond the rigidity of partisanship. This is not to suggest that they give in (or give up), nor that they entirely reject the left (which may be right on any number of issues and must, to a point, continue to inform and sustain Democratic politics), nor that compromise is always preferable to sticking up for core principles, especially if Republicans (as they have) refuse to compromise. It's rather to suggest that Democrats must be willing to work to the center, and for the sake of compromise, even as they continue to battle an arrogant Republican Party that has grown increasingly extremist. Either way, they'll either show their moderate bona fides to a skeptical American electorate and/or secure the center as the Republicans, pulled to the right by its base, abandon it altogether.

Regardless, the dearth of centrists in Congress can only be a bad omen of what is yet to come, and we'll get another glimpse of this with the upcoming nomination battle for the Supreme Court. If the Republicans insist on an extremist nominee, as seems to be the case, Democrats will have a great opportunity to move to the center and to speak for the vast majority of Americans who object to the politics of the far right. My optimism may be getting the better of me here, but it seems to me that Democrats will be able to benefit from the hijacking of the Republican Party by that far right -- but only if they're able to play their cards properly.

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