African Bears and the Death of the American Moderate
The American moderate is like a bear in Africa.
I should probably explain: there are no bears in Africa. This is because bears are omnivores. Though omnivores, at first glance, would seem to be best suited for eating meat when plants are rare and eating plants when other animals are in short supply, this turns out not to be the case. What actually happens is that bears are out-competed by ultra-predators such as lions and leopards and ultra-herbivores like gazelle, rhinos, and elephants for the relatively scarce resources of the savannah. Thus, while there may have been bears in Africa at one point or another, they have long since been phased out by natural selection, out-adapted by more specialized species.
Sen. John McCain campaigning at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., in June 2008.
This is essentially what is happening to the American moderate.
The advent of the Tea Party and the new libertarians have pushed the Republican Party further right than it has been in decades. Increasingly, Republicans like John McCain who were once willing to work across the aisle with Democrats are becoming more rare, and are more frequently demonized by their own side. Don’t forget, this is the party whose intransigence brought the country to the brink of both government shutdown and default in the same calendar year on the basis of a fundamentally unworkable slash-and-burn approach to spending while defending the Koch brothers’ right to be taxed at a lower rate than Warren Buffett’s secretary. This is not the behavior of a moderate group.
This sheer stubbornness has also pushed Democrats to sharpen their rhetoric and hence also to become more extreme. Deride Obamacare all you like for the compromises needed to push it through Congress, but, pending Thursday’s likely court decision, it remains the only instance in U.S. history in which the nation has moved towards universal health care. It was indisputably a liberal course of action, not one that would have been advanced by a moderate. The left, much like the right, is also moving away from the center.
So where have all the moderates gone? In today’s polarized political climate, they have simply been outcompeted.
The bear analogy to the American moderate is a surprisingly sharp one. With the rise of more radical movements, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, some politicians have managed to adapt while others have not. For those who have not, the result has been a gradual erosion of power that could eventually lead to extinction.
Consider, for instance, House Speaker John Boehner. No one would have accused Boehner of being too accommodating to the left in 2008, but, amazingly, the Tea Party caucus in Congress did exactly that during the budget and debt-ceiling crises, preferring more extreme “saviors” like Rep. Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. As such, Boehner’s relative lack of specialization to the extreme has left him politically neutered, an increasingly powerless entity in Capitol politics.
On the Democratic side, the erosion of moderation has been less about people falling out of favor and more about a general change in direction. Efforts to compromise have largely failed for most of the past four years, leading President Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole to favor more aggressive tactics in response to the GOP’s intransigence. This tone has been increasingly reflected in Obama’s more recent speeches and decisions. Make no mistake: the battle lines are being drawn.
Maybe this can all be chalked up to the upcoming election, but even this is a move away from moderation. This year’s election is particularly important because the next president could appoint as many as four new Supreme Court justices, thus setting the course of judicial review for decades. A court split 6-3 liberal or conservative is a huge home-court advantage for whichever party is able to secure the next presidency, and sets the stage for even more extreme policy confrontations in the future. The court is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Congress or the presidency, but control of this underrated third branch would be a major boost to the victor in 2012, and a long-lasting one at that.
Throughout all of this, the voices of true moderates will continue to fall on increasingly deaf ears through a combination of zealotry and frustration. Thanks to their dwindling numbers, the next decade of American politics will be one of extremes.