Recent liberal laments about the increasing "polarization" of American political life are as predictable as the seasons. But pleas for centrism ring pretty hollow in light of recent history.
The Washington Post editorial board, after noting Sen. Robert Bennett's loss in Utah and Sen. Blanche Lincoln's primary challenge, asked: "Is there a way to push back against the movement toward partisanship and paralysis -- to carve out some space for those who strive to work across party lines in the national interest? We can think of no more important question ... "
Really? How about the question as to whether the trajectory of government spending will drag the United States into insolvency? How about the problem of a governing class unmoored from the Constitution?
Following up on the Post's invitation to fret, William Galston and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution propound that "Washington's schism" is mostly a Republican problem. "What The Post's editorial missed is that these developments have not produced two mirror-image political parties. We have, instead, asymmetrical polarization."
Sounds contagious. What is it? "Put simply: More than 70 percent of Republicans in the electorate describe themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 40 percent of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal."
Two possible reasons for this spring to mind. 1) Many liberals, like some of those at the Washington Post, don't think of themselves as liberals. They imagine that they occupy the sensible center whereas you, well, you are an extremist. 2) Even acknowledging that self-labeling can be problematic, there are nearly twice as many self-identified conservatives (40 percent according to a 2009 Gallup survey) as liberals (21 percent) in the U.S.
The Post regrets that this polarized electorate prevents "anything from getting done," which is an odd complaint in a year that has witnessed an $800 billion stimulus bill, the federal acquisition of General Motors and AIG, a more than $1 trillion health bill, the multibillion-dollar mortgage bailout, and the nation's deliverance from the curse of salty food.
This call to a high-minded spirit of compromise was utterly absent in the winter of 2009, when it seemed that the Democrats would carry all before them. When newly inaugurated Barack Obama airily spurned Republicans who objected to aspects of the stimulus bill with the reply "I won," the Post did not pull its chin about the problem of polarization. Nor did the great stewards of bipartisanship turn a hair when Speaker Pelosi declared, during the health care debate, that "a bill can be bipartisan without bipartisan votes."
The Post is expressing a slightly more refined version of the broader liberal assault on conservative activism. In this construct, massive rallies for Obama are a sign of hope and human progress, but massive rallies against Obama's health care plan are evidence of "fringe sentiments" (Gov. Jennifer Granholm) or "fear" (Rep. Steve Driehaus), or are "un-American" (Rep. Steny Hoyer). When Michael Moore asked, during the Bush administration, "Dude, Where's My Country?" that was social commentary. When tea partiers say similar things, they are proto-fascists.
But the greater weakness in the liberal cant about meeting somewhere in the middle is this: The great domestic question of our time is whether we can restrain and even reverse the catastrophic expansion of government debt before it is too late. And until just yesterday, Republicans were AWOL. Or, to put it another way, they were just where the great conciliators of the Washington Post claim they should be. They had abandoned limited government and were reconciled to tinkering with huge federal entitlements to make them slightly less bankrupting than they otherwise would be.
The advent of the Obama administration, with its pell mell rush to transform us into Greece, is transforming the Republican Party as well. Grassroots activists are reasserting the virtues of limited government, personal responsibility, and public accountability. Our best hope is that tea party principles will prevail. Those are the very principles that can save us from Europe's fate.
We've done what the Post recommends. We met in the "middle." It didn't work out very well for Republicans or for America.