The Middle Abdicates
“I think the West has forgotten what democracy means.” —Vera Lengsfeld, holder of the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany’s highest civilian honor
Roughly a million years ago I sat down one day and, in a fit of pique, wrote a long essay entitled, “The Essential Liberal.”
That essay was published in a journal headquartered in Washington, D.C., edited by a guy named Amitai Etzioni, and shortly after my essay was published the journal went kaput. About which event I say no more.
Fortunately, another journal, noticing that there had been numerous requests for reprints of my essay, republished it as a stand-alone pamphlet, also called “The Essential Liberal.” They thoughtfully sent me 50 copies of the pamphlet and, over the years, I’ve managed to lose every single one of them.
As a result, I have no memory of any of the details of my argument, but I do remember the central thrust, which was this: America was losing its political middle, and that meant big trouble ahead.
I was, alas, ahead of my time, as Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II continued the center-right, center-left governance tradition, probably out of inertia, for several more decades. But I get ahead of my story.
Essentially since the founding of the American republic, and certainly since the Civil War, the U.S. has been governed by its political middle. The Democratic party, founded by Andrew Jackson and accelerating under FDR, has long established itself as the party of the center-left. (It is, in fact, the oldest surviving political party in the world.)
The Republican party, meanwhile, beginning with Lincoln, has established itself as the party of the center-right, and it is the second oldest surviving political party in the world. (The Conservative Party in the UK is the third oldest.)
Both the Democrats and the Republicans have always had their radical factions—radical-left for the Democrats and radical-right for the Republicans. And there have always been somewhat conservative Democrats, especially in the South, and somewhat liberal Republicans, especially in the Northeast—I’ve worked for two of them: John Lindsay and Richard Lugar.
But the radical factions were held in check during the twentieth century because we all knew exactly what happened when a society went too far to the left: the USSR, Red China, North Korea. And we also knew what happened when a society went too far to the right: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco.
Moreover, with the USSR a powerful and mortal enemy, the U.S. had to remain strong and united or risk extinction.
But the human memory, it turns out, is very short. Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was shot by Italian partisans, Franco got old and died. The Soviet Union collapsed, Deng Xiaoping invented a kinder, gentler China, the U.S. opened negotiations with Kim Jong-un.
Suddenly, there were no more boogiemen running around murdering people for the hell of it, and it seemed safe for everyone to adopt crazy-radical ideas and to have them taken seriously. If that weakened societies, so what? There were no nasty bad guys around to take advantage of it.
Barack Obama, whatever his sterling personal qualities, held political opinions that were further to the left of the American political center than any elected President in U.S. history. True, Obama wasn’t able to implement his policies because the Republicans controlled Congress for much of his Presidency, but that doesn’t mean that those policies weren’t there.
And then, partly in reaction to Obama, but more in reaction to a smug elite personified by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump was elected. Trump wasn’t exactly a radical-right Republican but a radical populist Republican, more similar to Andrew Jackson than to anything theretofore recognizable as Republicanism. He was, in effect, as radical in his own way as Barack Obama was in his.
(Just for the record, I was one of those hateful people who didn’t vote for Clinton or Trump.)
Then, in reaction to the supposedly illegitimate election of Trump, but also in reaction to his populist policies and his, uh, unusual personality, the Democrats swerved far to the left. The party launched the Resistance, demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor, moved forward rapidly with impeachment proceedings, and enthusiastically endorsed a group of Presidential candidates far more radical than any America has seen. Those candidates, whether you love them or hate them, make Barack Obama look like Calvin Coolidge.
Meanwhile, in reaction to the leftward lurch of the Democrats, the Republicans have closed ranks around President Trump, a bizarre outcome when you consider how much they all loathed the man only a few years earlier.
Right up until a few years ago it was easily possible to look at the political leanings of the American public and to note which ideas, whether they commanded a majority or not, were “mainstream” and which were fringe. But that’s no longer the case.
People who leaned right now lean profoundly right, and people who leaned left now lean profoundly left. Whenever I have a political conversation with someone, if they are on the left they consider me a fascist, and if they are on the right they consider me a communist.
As near as I can tell—and, for that matter, as far as I can tell—I’m the only person left in America who is still middle-of-the-road. I would run for President except that I hold with Anatole France, who once remarked that he was “not so utterly devoid of all talent as to occupy myself with politics.” Also, I’m too young.
It’s easy to dismiss America’s abdication of the middle as a phenomenon wholly associated with Donald Trump and of people’s extreme reactions to him pro and con. Except that the abdication of the middle isn’t just an American phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon. We’ll look at that terrifying mess next week.