“Great ideology creates great times,” promised at least one great leader. And enthusiasm for this concept among domestic ideologues shouldn’t be dampened just because the statement happened to spring from the mouth of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Il. The basic premise remains intoxicating – sharply polarized political combat will lead us to light and truth.
Ideology has long been the opiate of political elites. The appeal is understandable: insecurity and uncertainty are immediately banished. Inconvenient practical problems can be ignored; understanding other peoples’ perspective is unnecessary. Surrounded by like-minded compatriots, geared up for battle, even the most nerdish grad school student can be transformed into a self-styled heroic voice for the people.
Professional partisans believe that the period of relative polarization we have endured in this country has been healthy, almost cleansing. Advocating the “choice not an echo” school of political thought, they champion the self-segregation has led to political activists getting their news from partisan blogs such as Daily Kos in an elusive quest for philosophical purity. This, argue advocates like the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger in last Friday’s paper, is evidence that “today’s voters crave ideology.”
It seems a suspiciously self-serving analysis. There is plenty of evidence to argue that the American people are in fact sick of politics as it is practiced by the ideological warriors in and around Washington. To offer just one example, last May, the Harris Poll commissioned a survey which explicitly found that “partisanship is not what the American public desires.” Most impressive was the finding that 85% of adults – that’s four out five – “believe we need more elected politicians who will vote independently rather than on party lines.” That’s an explicit statement against this rigidly ideological approach to politics.
It is a snapshot backed up by such broad political trends as the three-fold growth in Independent and “non-affiliated” voters over the past 12 years, and the fact that self-described “moderates” vastly outnumber self-identified “conservatives” and “liberals” in the United States. As a nation, we value independence, not ideology. Our politicians are far more divided than the American people.
That’s perhaps why some august observers of American life have recently offered alternately stinging and sad critiques of the recent polarization in our politics.
In an essay titled “How Divided Are We?” James Q. Wilson in the February 2006 issue of Commentary compares the current political environment to the period before the Civil War, deploring “the larger ideological polarization that has us in its grip” and the harshly emotional partisanship which causes political opponents to view each-other “not simply as wrong, but as corrupt or wicked.”
In a new book entitled “Meditations of a Militant Moderate,” a professor at Yale Law School, Peter H. Schuck, lays out his version of a substantive centrist policy agenda as an antidote to polarization. His agenda bridges current political divisions, by calling for the introduction of school vouchers, the end of public-sector sponsored affirmative action, and a revision of the U.N. Charter to reflect the right of pre-emption in an era of terror. “Ideology,” he writes, “lacks the suppleness needed to apprehend and act on complicated, changing social facts.”
All this elevated opinion and hard data is backed up by facts on the ground as the 2006 election gets underway. Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican campaign strategist who is working on races in 7 states this season, sees a more pragmatic, less ideological shift in local electorates. “Look at the rise of the ‘Purple State’ problem: Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio – these were states that 15 years ago you could have said leaned decisively in one direction. Today, they’re up for grabs,” says Wilson. “Ten years ago, guys who liked NASCAR and guns were Republicans. Now new questions have entered the political equation: candidates better have ideas on jobs, health care, China, and corporate pensions – in addition to the traditional set of issues. Candidates have to reflect a genuine commitment to helping people solve their problems, rather than being rigidly locked in to a single ideological vision. So you have broaden your base, reaching out to the largest number rather than exclusively to the smallest – which is by definition on the far right or the far left.”
The fact that the consistent front-runners for the 2008 presidential nomination are centrist leaders with broad cross-over appeal – such as Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain – indicates a move away from rigid ideological litmus tests, even among the Republican base, in favor of independent problem-solvers. Likewise, among Democrats, even as front-runner Hillary Clinton has studiously attempted to present herself as a New Democrat, the most-mentioned alternatives – such as former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh – represent the center and not the left of their party.
Ideological advocates enjoy political polarization. It affirms their world-view by narrowing the consideration set to the far-right and the far-left. But whatever intoxicating feeling of disproportionate influence this might create, it also makes them ultimately out of touch with the electorate, inviting a bitter backlash against the party whose interests they claim to best protect.
Finally, in this era where we are the world’s sole super-power engaged in a war on terror, indulging in the domestic blood sport of domestic polarization has uniquely serious geo-political implications. As James Q. Wilson warns, “A divided America encourages our enemies, disheartens our allies and saps our resolve – to potentially fatal effect… polarization is a force that can defeat us.”