The Quixotic Quest for the Radical Center

Americans don't trust their government or each other. There's no reason to hope it'll get better.

compromise-you-first-cartoon

Dave Schuler points with bemusement to a Bloomberg editorial that gushes over poverty-fighting measures recommended by “the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute and the (liberal) Brookings Institution” and concluding that “The most effective way to make policy is not from the left or the right, but from the radical center.”  Dave retorts:

What world are they living in? The reason the two sides can’t reach agreement isn’t because they don’t agree. It’s because the objectives of modern politics are to help your allies and injure your opponents while encouraging wealthy donors to give you more of their money. Agreeing with your political opposition doesn’t get you any of that.

The history of American politics over the last 40 years is that the two political parties, both of which were “catch-all” parties, representing broad swathes of the political spectrum and in which centrists held considerable sway, have increasingly evolved into programmatic parties dominated by their most radical members. Every year there are fewer centrists in the Congress and they’re almost completely absent from the Congressional leadership.

Explain to me again how we’re going to make policy from the radical center.

I’ve come to roughly the same point of cynicism, which is a big reason for my ongoing blog fatigue. The American public seems to be there, too, which partly explains the state of play in the 2016 presidential contest to date.

That the American right has been spinning off its axis for quite some time is not exactly news. I’ve written dozens, if not hundreds of posts lamenting the state of the conservative movement.  While there has been a lunatic fringe since well before I was born, and politicians on the right have often cultivated their support, the lunatics started taking over the asylum at some point. It became clear with the emergence of the Tea Party and it’s coming to a head with the 2016 cycle and the bizarre spectacle of Donald Trump remaining the Republican frontrunner for months.

Commenting on a Facebook thread on Doug Mataconis’ recent posting “Republicans Say They Want a ‘Conservative’ Presidential Nominee,” an old Army buddy rightly questioned, “Then why has been and is Trump leading in the polls? He’s not a conservative.” To which one of our former bosses replied,
“My guess is because he’s saying what a lot of people think. We’ve voted for ‘conservatives’ and look what it got us – I’m OK with a guy who’s smart enough to make a billion or two. He’s a businessman and he’s selling something. If he’s an honest businessman he’ll deliver. If not, he’ll just be another Republican.” He’s a smart, decent, successful man who spent over 20 years in uniform. And yet he’s so cynical about American politics that he honestly believes Trump is better than the alternatives.

There’s no direct parallel on the left. As much as I personally disdain and distrust Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner is running a fairly standard campaign rather than pandering to the crazies. The closest she has to a serious challenger, Bernie Sanders, calls himself a Socialist and rails against the system but he’s not exactly calling for confiscation of land and the nationalization of industry. Martin O’Malley, who has no shot at all, is probably closer ideologically to Mitt Romney and John Kasich than to Sanders. But, while Democrats seem resigned to Clinton as their nominee, the hope for an Elizabeth Warren or someone else outside the establishment—thus the Sanders boomlet—is indicative of serious dissatisfaction.

A recent Pew poll found that only 19% of Americans trust their government all or most of the time and 74% believe politicians put their own interests ahead of those of the country’s most of the time. 55% in the same survey thought that “ordinary Americans” would do a better job than the political class at solving America’s problems. It’s perhaps not surprising that 89% of Republicans trust their government never or only sometimes. But the same was true of 72% of Democrats—and their man is in the White House.

The malaise goes deeper than mere distrust of politicians:

While overall views of the federal government are very negative, there also are several indications of widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of politics. In politics today, far more people say “their side” – however they perceive it – is losing more often than it is winning.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that on the issues that matter to them, their side loses more often than it wins. Just 25% say their side comes out ahead more often.

This sense of “losing” is more widely shared among Republicans than Democrats – large majorities of both conservative Republicans (81%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (75%) say their political side loses more often than it wins.

But while most Republicans feel like they lose more often than they win, most Democrats do not feel like “winners” either. Overall, 52% of Democrats say their side loses more often than it wins, while 40% say it usually wins. Liberal Democrats are divided over whether their side wins or loses more often (46% winning vs. 44% losing) – the only ideological group in which a majority does not think its side is losing.

Cynicism about politics also is reflected in the public’s attitudes regarding money in politics. Fully 76% say that “money has a greater influence on politics and elected officials today than in the past.” Just 22% say the influence of money in politics is little different than in the past.

And, as both parties’ nominating contests continue, 64% of all Americans – including 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans – say that the high cost of a presidential campaign “discourages many good candidates from running.” Just 31% overall say that the high cost of presidential campaigns does not discourage good candidates from running.

Increasingly, Americans even express less confidence in their own collective political wisdom. Just 34% say they have a very great deal or good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions, while 63% have little or no confidence. In January 2007, these opinions were almost the reverse – 57% had at least a good deal of confidence in the political wisdom of the people, while 41% did not.

The loss of confidence cuts across the political spectrum: 36% of Republicans have at least a great deal of confidence in the public’s political wisdom; 61% did so in 2007. The decline has been about as large among Democrats (57% then, 37% now).

While Republicans are clearly much more frustrated, given back-to-back losses in presidential races (and four of the last five in terms of the popular vote), continued defeats on social policy, and a sense that Republican winners fail to deliver conservative policies, there’s been a strong disillusionment among Democrats that’s fueled by the same sentiment that the wishes of the voters don’t really matter. While President Obama’s job approval remains remarkably high among his co-partisans, there remains deep frustration about the bail-outs of the big banks and a sense that big money is more important in American politics than the little people. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter happened with Democrats in control of government, after all.

There’s little reason for optimism that any of this will turn around. In 1988, George H.W. Bush got elected to carry on a “kinder, gentler” version of Ronald Reagan’s policies. In 1992, he was defeated by a Bill Clinton who promised to be a new kind of Democrat. George W. Bush succeeded him in 2000 promising to be a “compassionate conservative” who would have a “humble foreign policy.” Barack Obama sailed to victory in 2008 on “hope” and “change.” The one continuity over their presidencies is that the country has become ever more polarized.

Hillary Clinton is a less soothing, more polarizing Obama. Trump is the most divisive major political leader in my lifetime and the challengers for the Republican nomination most likely to be able to govern from something like a “radical center” are precisely those doing least well in the polling thus far.

 

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Davebo says:

    There’s money in politics. And no, I’m not talking about SuperPacs.

    Even more money can be made by stoking the flames of partisanship and convincing people of the side they should be on. Unsurprisingly the industry has had incredible growth over the past 30 years and shows no sign of receding.

  2. Tony W says:

    This is a leadership problem above all else.

    All of the hand wringing and despair feels like a macro problem that doesn’t exist at the individual level. When I talk with my conservative friends and co-workers I find that we agree on nearly everything. There are minor differences in approach – some of them informed by Fox News-style rhetoric, but ultimately we want the same things: Safety and security for our families, affordable health care, education and interesting work for everyone, etc. When pressed, my most conservative friends acknowledge many of the great things Obama has done to improve the country, and they even appreciate the ACA (for themselves) while they discuss some nebulous friend or acquaintance who has been damaged by it.

    Point is, the differences are not as big as they seem! Everyone puts on their jersey and game face for the national media – politicians seek to solidify a strong difference between candidates, and the media loves a sh1tstorm – but I still believe a very strong leader could call it for what it is and rise above the fray.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    In the words of Jim Hightower the only thing you find in the center of the road is a line and dead armadillos.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    This made me laugh:

    And, as both parties’ nominating contests continue, 64% of all Americans – including 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans – say that the high cost of a presidential campaign “discourages many good candidates from running.”

    It sure as Hades hasn’t stopped the demagogic to mediocre to outright delusional Republican candidates from running.

    As to this:

    Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter happened with Democrats in control of government, after all.

    I think you need a smaller brush James as that generalization you paint there hasn’t been true in quite some time. Even allowing for nominal control of Congress and the White House (while totally ignoring the fact that conservatives have dominated the Supreme Court for a much longer period) from Jan ’09 to Jan ’11, OWS started in Sept 2011, and BLM began in 2013, both when Republicans had the House.

    In other words, we have had a divided govt for quite some time. I suppose one can say with some truth that we have always had a divided govt. Right now the GOP is in solid control of the Legislative branch, the Dems have the White House, and the SC leans whichever way Kennedy’s robes are blown. I think it is safe to say that most of the disillusionment from both sides is born of the fact that neither can do whatever they want.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Humans hate and mistrust change. It applies to tribal hunter and gathers, 21st century Americans and everything in between. The world is changing. My late mother, who was not a bad person, thought the US of A was finished when Obama was elected. The rapidly changing demographics of the country scare the hell out of many. The fact that their jobs have been outsourced or automated contributes to the fear. When I lived in Germany the Germans didn’t like the Turkish “guest workers” but knew they needed them. Perhaps that’s a lesson we could learn from the Germans, who is going to harvest the crops that feed you or put that new roof on your house?

  6. Pch101 says:

    an old Army buddy rightly questioned, “Then why has been and is Trump leading in the polls? He’s not a conservative.”

    Because the conservative movement in the United States is largely a populist movement, motivated by race and/or religion, not by free trade, big business or limited government.

    The rhetoric of the right confuses the matter. There are libertarian conservatives who genuinely believe in “small government.” But for the right-wing populist, “small government” = government that enforces right-wing Christian, anti-minority orthodoxy and attacks institutions that are perceived to help minorities, such as welfare programs. They don’t mind a government that intrudes into our lives, just as long as that government intrudes in the manner preferred by the populists.

    Trump fires on all cylinders for the right-wing populists. He trashes minorities, trashes Muslims, trashes immigrants, and is generally rude, the very sort of anti-social angry behavior that the anti-PC crowd wants. At the same time, he blames trade for lost jobs and declining living standards, which fits in quite nicely with the anti-foreigner, America First martyrdom complex that inhabits the populist right.

    Establishment conservatives ought to recognize that they do not have a monopoly on defining what conservatism is. Rather, there are wings of the conservative movement that have diverging views on economic issues but that are united by a mentality that prioritizes whites as it dismisses the grievances of minorities. The establishment is motivated by money; the populists by culture. There isn’t much room in the GOP for dedicated libertarians who genuinely believe in limited government for the sake of it and who aren’t motivated by racism, Christian theology or nativism.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It’s certainly true that, in an increasingly polarized system, it’s harder to ascribe true “control” of the government to any one party unless they simultaneously control the White House, the House, and 60 or more votes in the Senate. Still, it’s inarguably true that the same dynamic redounds to the benefit of the party in control of the White House, since a president willing to endure the howls of protest from the other side can damn near rule by fiat unless the Congress can somehow put together supermajorities to stop him.

  8. Stan says:

    I disagree with the major premise of this article. I think that the Republican party has moved very far to the right and that election of a Republican president from anybody in the current list of candidates would mean more income inequality, the end of our modest attempts to provide medical care for our poorer citizens, a deepening military involvement in the Mideast morass, and a harsh, inhumane attitude toward refugees and other immigrants. Regarding Hillary Clinton, I wish Joyner would provide some basis for his disdain for her politics and her personal ethics. To me, our deepest national problem has always been integrating racial and religious minorities into our national fabric, and this is something both Clintons have recognized for most of their political lives (see http://tinyurl.com/nmnn6w4). If elected I think Hillary Clinton would be a better president than Obama, and that is high praise in my book.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    I think Republicans have an especially tough time here. Nearly two generations have passed where the GOP has completely ve embraced the concept that government is always bad, always part of the problem. This has left them with politicians who are only interested in pulling things down. The day to day running of a country does not even register with them. The Republicans who felt differently have either retired or been driven from office by the lunatic right.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    @Stan:

    I disagree with the major premise of this article. I think that the Republican party has moved very far to the right

    A sometimes commenter at my site came up with a phrase that I think is very descriptive of one major component of the present Republican Party: Right Bolsheviks. They’re not conservatives by any reasonable definition. They’re radicals.

  11. Stan says:

    @Dave Schuler: I agree that they’re radicals, and I wonder how the financial and business community are reacting to the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. Bush seems out of the running, Kasich and Christie were never in it, and Rubio is awfully callow. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a Businessmen for Clinton committee with some big names represented if Trump or Cruz is the nominee.

  12. I am increasingly convinced that the fundamental problem is that our system is terrible at accurately reflecting popular preferences. Two key examples: it does not a) produce representative outcomes in the House, and b) the Senate overly empowers minorities in multiple ways. This leads to a great deal of frustration and makes policy-making ridiculously difficult, if not impossible.

    If the preference of the population are not well represented in a representative government, we should expect citizens to have low opinions of governing institutions.

    Of course, none of this is going to change any time soon.

  13. Pch101 says:

    They’re not conservatives by any reasonable definition. They’re radicals.

    “Reactionary” is the more appropriate term.

    And they are also conservatives. Conservatism is essentially just an appeal to tradition for the sake of it. When conservatives demand “change,” it invariably refers to a reversion to the past or some romanticized version of the past.

  14. DrDaveT says:

    the two political parties […] have increasingly evolved into programmatic parties dominated by their most radical members.

    Sorry, Dave Schuler, this is only half-true. Or, to be more precise — it’s exactly true of the GOP, and not at all true of the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is roughly as left-wing as Ronald Reagan was, and decidedly less left-wing than Richard “Price controls” Nixon. It requires willful ignorance to make this a “both sides do it” instance.

    There’s no direct parallel on the left. As much as I personally disdain and distrust Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner is running a fairly standard campaign rather than pandering to the crazies. The closest she has to a serious challenger, Bernie Sanders, calls himself a Socialist and rails against the system but he’s not exactly calling for confiscation of land and the nationalization of industry.

    Exactly. The most extreme leftist in recent Democratic candidate history is a moderate progressive on the international or historical scale. The most moderate current Republican candidate with any significant standing in the polls would dismiss Dwight Eisenhower as a raving socialist.

    Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter happened with Democrats in control of government, after all.

    That’s a rather facile confusion of correlation and causation, James. Far more significantly, both of those movements happened in reaction to the Republican-caused financial implosion of 2008 and “law and order” inner-city militarization of the W administration. You can’t blame Obama for being president when the rock landed; you have to look at who hurled it into the air in the first place.

  15. Gustopher says:

    I’m scratching my head, trying to think of Leftist Clinton positions. Her Health Care plan from the 1990s was one, and enough so that ObamaCare basically is the Republican counter proposal, 20-25 years later.

    Beyond that she’s a pretty conservative Democrat. I would love to get an actual leftist, to roll back some of the right wing progress over the past few decades, but we don’t have one with a serious chance of getting the nomination.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The most extreme leftist in recent Democratic candidate history is a moderate progressive on the international or historical scale.

    “’tis true, ’tis true ’tis pity, And pity ’tis, ’tis true”

    Let me think. We Democrats regret some of the financial deregulation Bill Clinton signed. We were OK with JFK lowering the top tax bracket into the 70s, now we’d like to raise it back to there. We pay more attention to income inequality than we used to, because it’s clearly worse than it used to be. Some Dems signed on to invading Iraq and came to regret it. AGW hadn’t become a major issue until maybe twenty years ago.

    Can the “both sides do it” crowd help me out here? I’m trying to come up with a significant issue on which Dems have moved left. What have you got?

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    I’m scratching my head, trying to think of Leftist Clinton positions.

    I was having the same problem. I went to her website, and was startled by the mismatch between what’s listed there and what one actually hears reported on TV or in the papers.

    Here’s the list, which is bizarrely in alphabetical order. Someone needs to fire a geek. I’ve included the subtitle where I thought the spin was not obvious from the title.

    Campaign finance reform
    Campus sexual assault
    Climate change and energy
    College
    Criminal justice reform
    Disability rights
    Early childhood education
    Economy — The defining economic challenge of our time is raising incomes for hard-working Americans.
    Gun violence prevention
    Health care — Affordable health care is a basic human right.
    Immigration reform — America needs comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
    K–12 education — A world-class education for every child in every community.
    Labor — When unions are strong, America is strong.
    LGBT equality
    National security
    Rural communities
    Small business
    Social Security and Medicare — We must preserve, protect, and strengthen these lifelines.
    Substance use disorder and addiction
    Veterans, the armed forces, and their families
    Voting rights — We should be making it easier to vote, not harder.
    Wall Street and corporate America — Wall Street must work for Main Street.
    Women’s rights and opportunity
    Workforce and skills

    That’s a pretty confused list. Many of these are mom-and-apple-pie stuff, and a few are dog whistles for the youngest voters, but there are also a few clear leftist agendas there. “When unions are strong, America is strong” is about as classic left as you can get. Immigration reform that doesn’t mean “immigration prevention” is a liberal position. Voting rights, “Wall Street must work for Main Street”, substance abuse as a disease not a crime, LGBT equality, improving pre-K-12 education in poor communities, women’s rights, gun violence prevention… those are all liberal/progressive.

    We’ll see how many of them last all the way to the general election…

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @DrDaveT: People on the right who came of age during the Clinton years are so convinced of their nefarious intent they can never take a step back and do a reality check. I’ve never heard anyone on Hillary’s side claim she is Mother Teresa, but the right continues to marshal out shocking incident after shocking incident where she (or her husband) behaved like… a politician willing to make compromises to get things done. On the ethical front, it is beyond scandal(!!!!) that Bill Clinton has made highly paid speeches for trade groups… despite the fact that every president at least since Ford has done it.

    Bill Clinton Schmoozes rich people and governments to shovel big bucks to his… charity. Bill Clinton loves to be the center of attention!! The Clinton’s made money off of investment schemes during the 70’s! None of us in the Hillary camp claim that these types of investments smell like roses, but we also know that virtually every politician this side of Joe Biden has left office richer than they came in.

    The right just knows that Hillary is the b*tch queen of sleaze. The fact that every time they try to come up with examples it turns out to be, at best, small beer just means that the really damaging stuff has slipped their mind for the moment.

  19. Barry says:

    James: “Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter happened with Democrats in control of government, after all.”

    So what?

    The fact that the Democratic Party won in ’08 didn’t bring about the Jubilee, and much of the progress which was made was through the left pushing hard.

  20. Barry says:

    James: “The one continuity over their presidencies is that the country has become ever more polarized.”

    Look at the liberal reaction to Bush, and the right-wing reaction to Obama – the first involved much less reaction to bad governance.

    ‘Both Sides Do It’ is a lie.

  21. Barry says:

    @Davebo:

    “There’s money in politics. And no, I’m not talking about SuperPacs.

    Even more money can be made by stoking the flames of partisanship and convincing people of the side they should be on. Unsurprisingly the industry has had incredible growth over the past 30 years and shows no sign of receding.”

    And that industry is what? 90% on the right? There’s no liberal equivalent of Fox News, or the entire AM radio spectrum.

  22. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Still, it’s inarguably true that the same dynamic redounds to the benefit of the party in control of the White House, since a president willing to endure the howls of protest from the other side can damn near rule by fiat unless the Congress can somehow put together supermajorities to stop him.”

    Please review Civics 101, James, and then meditate on the Obama administration. Or Just talk to your co-blogger about ‘chokepoints’.

  23. Barry says:

    @Stan: “…and I wonder how the financial and business community are reacting to the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. ”

    My guess is that their only fear is of Trump taking the GOP down wholesale in ’16.

    Remember the Bush administration – that had to have been worth a cool trillion$ in profits to the elites. Another GOP administation would bring vastly increased profits for 8 years, and a solidly proto-fascist GOP SCOTUS who’d keep such profits going for another decade or two.

  24. Barry says:

    @DrDaveT: ““When unions are strong, America is strong” is about as classic left as you can get.”

    The fact that that’s the leftist-wingiest thing which you can point to is telling.

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @Barry: And our current Dems are to the right of it. Heard anybody advocating for card check?

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: President Obama has enacted all manner of significant policy changes by fiat.

  27. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: Interesting accusation which I hear all the time, I would love to hear some egregious, unprecedented examples – particularly following the king of ‘signing statements’ Mr. Bush.

    Mostly what I get from the right is the “he wants to take your guns away” kind of rhetoric.

  28. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: Obama’s moves on sexual orientation were almost entirely by fiat. Ditto opening combat roles to women, declining to enforce several notable laws with which he disagrees, etc. I’m not arguing that Bush didn’t also do major things by fiat or that Obama is somehow a monster. I just note that the system swings both ways and that gridlock in Congress often givens the president more, not less, power.

  29. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Obama’s moves on sexual orientation were almost entirely by fiat. Ditto opening combat roles to women, declining to enforce several notable laws with which he disagrees, etc.

    I get the last one (e.g. with respect to illegal immigrants, although when it’s clearly impossible to enforce the law everywhere it makes sense to prioritize). I don’t get the first two — most of the progress on sexual orientation equality has come via the Supreme Court, and the roles of women in the military were never statutory to begin with. What am I missing here?

  30. Oly says:

    @James Joyner: “Outside the Beltway”??
    This id the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s not much “outside” at all – reads like a real “Old Boy” insider’s [Inside the Beltway, that is] rag.
    You simply do not “Get it” – many of us are FED UP with all forms of business as usual – it is no longer really my fight due to age, but what is happening stands to ruin if not eliminate my grandchildren’s lives.
    And you call people like me “Crazies” -Bah! Humbug!