San Pedro, CA - On February 28, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe announced her retirement from the US Senate, citing her frustration with partisan gridlock. She did not get into specifics about who was to blame, but the dominant narrative of the American pundit class, wrong as always, predictably blamed both sides. "The center crumbles," by Politico's Jonathan Allen, was prototypical, although there were some notable exceptions.
Blaming both parties equally is only part of what the dominant narrative around figures like Snowe gets wrong, however. It's wrong about Snowe's actual politics - and that of "moderate" Republicans in general. It's wrong about centrists' political power. It's wrong about the sobriety, good sense and public-spiritedness of Washington centrists, wrong about characterising them in opposition to "special interests", wrong even to be calling them "centrists" without ever taking note of the enormous gap between their views and those of the American people.
Above all, it is wrong to propagate the historical delusion that bipartisan consensus is the key to solving the United States' biggest problems because that's the way it's always been done in the past. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than this last belief: consensus has always been the enemy of progress, unless and until it is overthrown, and a new consensus is formed on what were previously radical foundations. This is how the US itself was established. It is how slavery was ended. How women got the vote. How segregation was ended. How women and minorities got formal equality under law. How labour got the right to organise, and how the modern middle class was forged into being in the furnace of class struggle. It was even, ultimately, how "big government" put a man on the moon.
As Dr Martin Luther King, Jr explained in his famous - but too seldom-read - "Letter From Birmingham Jail", "untimely" confrontation was fundamentally necessary in order to disrupt the superficial, temporary peace of repression, in order that the deep and lasting peace of justice could be established through a struggle for righteousness. King was writing specifically about the process of mass non-violent civil disobedience used to desegregate the South, but the same principle applies to the entire panorama of all profound political change that advances human progress. And the US is in crisis today precisely because it is entirely convinced that those self-congratulatory "voices of reason" who opposed King were the ones who knew how to get things done - as well as what ought to be done.
Indeed, my former Open Left blogmate Mike Lux wrote a whole book - The Progressive Revolution - about how the United States' history of political progress at the federal level is packed into discrete episodes of a few short years of dramatically furious activity sustained by strong ideological majorities. The Civil War Radical Republicans, the Great Depression New Deal Democrats, and the 1960s Great Society Democrats are three of the best-known examples.
Behind the above-noted barrage of false claims is an underlying centre-right ideology, a structure of lies that serves to rationalise the existing order of American empire, and the dysfunctional dominance of the 1 per cent. It is procedurally centrist - theoretically based on objectivity, and broad democratic responsiveness; but substantively conservative - practically dedicated to continuing a 30+ year process of upward redistribution of wealth and power, in which most alternatives never even get heard, much less considered. To see how this works, let's look at each of false claims I singled out and compare them with the actual state of things, commonly known as "da facts".
Blaming both parties
The next day, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow presented the most devastating single refutation of the "both parties are equally to blame" myth, centering on the research of UCLA political scientist Keith Poole and his colleagues, whose DW-NOMINATE scale, based on congressional roll call votes, is considered the gold standard in academic political science (website here). A recent series of blog posts updating the database with 2011 data contained charts providing different perspectives. Maddow used a chart from Part 4, showing the 10 per cent most moderate and extreme positions for both parties in the House since 1879.
Highlighting the period from around 1980 onward, Maddow noted that the most extreme Democrats had remained virtually unchanged since even a decade before that, while moderate Democrats had only become modestly more liberal. In contrast, both moderate and extreme Republicans had grown dramatically more conservative. In fact, moderate Republicans today are more conservative than extreme Republicans were in the mid-1970s. Another chart from this series, in Part 1, helps to further clarify what's happened with the Democrats. It shows that northern Democrats are almost exactly as liberal as they were in the late 1960s. Southern Democrats have grown more liberal, however - as well as declining in numbers.
But lopsided polarisation is not limited to the make-up of Congress. There's a similar pattern among the population at large. Six years ago, I did an analysis based on data from the General Social Survey (GSS) - the most-used US data source after the US Census. Comparing three time periods - 1972-1984, 1985-1993 and 1994-2004 - I found that conservatives were far more concentrated within the GOP than liberals were within the Democratic Party, and that that concentration increased more rapidly within the GOP. Conservatives made up 49 per cent of the GOP in the period 1972-1984, and increased to 61 per cent from 1994 to 2004. Liberals comprised 32 per cent of the Democratic Party in the first period and ended at 39 per cent.
Thus, liberals were 10 per cent less dominant in the Democratic Party at the end of this process than conservatives were in the GOP at the beginning. Both in Congress and on the ground, ideological polarisation is being driven by Republicans and conservatives. Polarisation on the liberal Democratic side is significantly more modest, and is largely a result of the conservative-driven polarisation on the other side: conservatives leaving the Democratic Party automatically make it somewhat more liberal. In the white South, for example, conservative Republicans went from making up11.8 per cent of the population to 23.6 per cent, a 100 per cent increase.
Of course, plenty of people have a hard time relating to arguments with numbers - even when numbers are the best way to cut through the fog of misleading narratives. But with such an overwhelming political shift, there's clearly a compelling history to be told, which can be found in Geoffrey Kabaservice's recently-published book, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, which Mark Schmitt reviewed for the New Republic last month. Conceptually, it's not a perfect book: as Publisher’s Weekly noted, it says little "about Republican business constituencies that benefit from conservatives' devotion to the needs of wealthy 'job-creators'". But it contains a wealth of rich historical detail. "This is hardcore political history, full of bitter campaigns, factional infighting and backroom deals," that same PW review says. No one can doubt that it actually happened, even if it's not the full story in all its dimensions.
Most importantly for the point I'm making, nothing similar could be written about the Democratic Party, for the simple reason that exactly the opposite happened on that side of the aisle. Since the 1970s, Democratic Party leadership has moved significantly to the right, distancing itself from its electoral base while aligning itself more closely with its major donor base in the 1 per cent. The early stages of this process were explored in the 1986 book Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. This was then followed by the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both hailed in their campaigns for their departure from traditional Democratic Party liberalism.
Consistent with this broad historical sweep, one could also look at specific historical figures. Democrats recently have been particularly keen to cite the example of Ronald Reagan, who raised taxes more times than he lowered them - and thus could never have been nominated for president in today's Republican Party.
But it's not just his tax record that would have doomed Reagan. He also signed a mass amnesty immigration bill, which applied to 3 million undocumented immigrants, and he negotiated with the Soviet Union, even going so far as to almost sign a treaty abolishing nuclear weapons. In today's GOP, these few facts alone would have made it difficult for him to even be elected dog-catcher.
The story is similar with Barry Goldwater - the founding father of the modern conservative movement so far as the GOP is concerned. A true libertarian, he was dubious from the start about the social conservatives elected to Congress along with Reagan's 1980 election, and over time he earned outright enmity for his support for gay rights, for example.
Even Mitt Romney serves to illustrate this same pattern. No doubt some of his reputation as a flip-flopper is richly and personally deserved. But in the case of Romneycare, he was acting on the basis of conservative principles articulated by the Heritage Foundation in its 1995 healthcare reform proposals. Romney's problem was simply that once Barack Obama embraced those same principles - well to the right of what his supporters wanted - conservatives quickly abandoned them, and denounced them as socialist, not to mention unconstitutional.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have similar problems of their own, due to Bush-era conservative positions they took that have since been similarly disavowed. This is further stark evidence that conservatives keep on moving further and further to the right, redefining yesterday's conservatism as "moderate" at best, and downright "socialist", even "treasonous" at worst.
One final point: all the above should be qualified by noting that "conservative" is largely a political identity devoid of any fixed content, defined largely in opposition to its enemies of the moment. A majority of conservatives today still support the welfare state, for example, as GSS data shows they have always done, despite politicians railing against it. And if they're still reluctant to support gay marriage, they're only 10 or 20 years away from claiming they were the pioneer advocates for it, at least if their attempts to rewrite US racial history is any guide. That's why claims that "America is a centre-right nation" are absurd on their face - they're based on political identity labels, as opposed to substantive political views.
The mythical sobriety of Washington centrists
"On virtually every major controversial issue ... the Republicans (including their vaunted mythical moderates and mavericks) vote in almost complete lockstep in favour of the President."
- Glenn Greenwald
As the above summary shows, the Beltway myth of balanced polarisation entirely falsifies the historical context of bipartisan/centrist politics today. But that's only the beginning. The falsified historical context functions as the framework in which all sorts of other false stories are told. Perhaps the most sinister of these is the very nature of the existing bipartisan consensus itself. It's supposed to be weak and crumbling, striving to realise the public good against incredible odds, guided by sober good sense and public-spiritedness. But it's actually a 1 per cent shadow play, far removed from public opinion or common decency. Centrists are actually stronger than they appear to be - and much more conservative, too.
In October 2006, blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote about his dashed hopes that moderate GOP senators might serve as a check on the Bush administation's extremism. But in the end, he lamented that "Nobody has done more to enable the worst aspects of the extremist Bush agenda than they have". This is entirely consistent with Kabaservice's historical account in Rule and Ruin, as Schmitt reflected on it:
Futility was built into the attitude and the spirit of the moderate Republicans. Their loyalty to the Republican Party took priority over their other commitments. Being a Republican was a mark of class and ethnicity (or the lack thereof), much like Episcopalianism. Moderates adhered to the 'Eleventh Commandment' attributed (incorrectly, Kabaservice tells us) to Ronald Reagan - 'Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican' - while conservatives did not hesitate to demonise their intra-party rivals. Moderates grumbled quietly about Goldwater and about Nixon’s Southern Strategy, but they went along.
Of course, things were quite different on the other side of the aisle, as conservative Democrats never tired of trashing liberals, or even their own party by name. And in early 2008, Greenwald wrote about conservative Senate Democrats' role in the "bi-partisan" shadow play, condemning MoveOn.org. After the list, he wrote:
On virtually every major controversial issue - particularly, though not only, ones involving national security and terrorism - the Republicans (including their vaunted mythical moderates and mavericks) vote in almost complete lockstep in favour of the President, the Democratic caucus splits, and the Republicans then get their way on every issue thanks to 'bipartisan' support. That’s what 'bipartisanship' in Washington means.
In short, Washington "centrists" may adopt language and mannerisms that symbolically represent sobriety, good sense and public-spiritedness, but when it comes down to actual substance, there's simply no there.
Centrists' mismanaged political power
In one sense, as just argued, DC centrists have enormous political power, as Greenwald's 2008 post itemised. But in another sense, they are powerless, because their chosen policies simply do not and cannot work as advertised. (Roughly put: today's centrism is yesterday's conservatism, abandoned because it did not work.) This contradiction, in turn, sets up a dynamic in which their "powerless" act is but one more way of evading responsibility, shifting blame onto others when the environment around them is not so favourable.
Jonathan Chait seemed to pick up on this in his New York magazine article "Olympia Snowe’s Strange Martyrdom". Senate moderates, he wrote, have been "scorned, marginalised and hunted close to extinction. Yet the striking fact about Snowe's career is that, far from being shunted to the sidelines, she has wielded, or been given the opportunity to wield, enormous power." The problem, Chait continued: "She has used it, on the whole, quite badly." Instead of articulating and fighting for her own vision, she has produced nothing but a defensive, incoherent muddle.
Chait considered the example of Snowe's repeated, contradictory position shifts on healthcare reform. She wasn't pursuing any particular principle that anyone could identify. What she was angling for was political cover "between infuriating Republicans in Washington and moderate voters in Maine" by "creating legislation that passes by wide margins... to ensure her vote sits comfortably in the middle of a wide swath of support from both sides." The principle here is obvious: political survival. Period. Chait concluded, "Snowe's career proved that it's entirely possible to steer clear of the party line without upholding any particular notion of the public good".
Again, this recalls Kabaservice's account in Rule and Ruin, about which Schmitt wrote that it "establishes without a doubt that its subjects have no one but themselves to blame for their downfall".
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it this way: "If there is no longer any 'centre' in Washington, it's because 'centrist' Republicans are not embracing solutions that are actually centrist."
Olympia Snowe and today's 'moderate Republican' politics
One minor detail that seems to have escaped most pundits' notice is that Snowe stopped acting like a centrist some time ago, in an apparent attempt to shore up her re-election chances in the face of serious Tea Party hostility. (It's still unclear why she actually quit, given her relative success on this front. Some have suggested a looming scandal.) One of the few to pick up on this has been Media Matters' Jamison Foser, who wrote about Snowe's progress in winning over Maine Tea Partiers back in November.
In another post that month, "Tea Party Economics Is Republican Economics", Foser quoted from a piece by David Frum, a speechwriter who worked for the Bush administration, worrying that the "Tea Party could drive GOP to disaster" because it "stands for a series of propositions that don't meet the reality test".
Foser then proceeded to show that there was virtually no difference between the Tea Party and moderate Republicans. He took specific Tea Party examples cited by Frum and matched them with quotes from Mitt Romney and Olympia Snowe. Headings included, "Deficits matter more than jobs", "Cutting deficits and tightening credit will accelerate economic growth", "High taxes and over-regulation are the most important reasons that growth has not revived", "Call for a radical shift in the burden of taxation from the rich to the poor", and "Promise big reductions in government spending without touching any of the benefits of current retirees".
Of course, another way of looking at the above is that Tea Party economics have become centrist Washington economics - and certainly, during the GOP-manufactured debt limit crisis last summer, this appeared to be the case. But that only reinforces my broader argument that DC centrism is essentially conservative in substance, and centrist only in a nominal, procedural sense. Given how far Republicans have moved to the right since 1980, and how Democrats have repeatedly followed them, this latest development is simply par for the course. The only difference now is that Occupy Wall Street has emerged as a genuine grassroots uprising against the relentless rightward march of the 1 per cent.
The myth of consensus leadership
Olympia Snowe is but a single senator, soon to leave the Washington scene. But President Obama - whose re-election seems increasingly likely - has repeatedly committed himself to trying to govern and to solve some of the United States' most pressing problems by forging a bi-partisan, nay, post-partisan consensus. Yet, the criticisms raised above are of a piece with an even more sweeping critique. Simply put, there is no real historical precedent in American history for the sort of consensus cross-party leadership that Obama seeks. Indeed, Obama is almost certainly confusing the problem with the solution.
"Divided government is a field day for anti-democratic, backroom deal-making."
Throughout most of US history, either one party or the other has dominated politics for decades at a time. Political scientists and historians sometimes speak of a series of "party systems", each lasting around 40 years or so, and usually ushered in by a "realigning election" in which a majority coalition emerges that sustains itself across several decades before starting to decay. From 1800 to 1968, there have been five such party systems. The year 1968 broke this pattern. It was more of a de-aligning election - a Republican president (Nixon) won with 43 per cent of the vote, and two Democratic houses of Congress. Every party system before that had one dominant party, in terms of winning trifectas - the White House and both houses of Congress. But since 1968, there have been many more cases of divided government than of either party winning a trifecta.
Obama won a trifecta in 2008, just as Clinton did in 1992, and both those Democratic presidents purposely tried to work with Republicans, only to meet with no-holds-barred opposition. Republicans, it seems, have not forgotten the dominant pattern of American politics. They know that one-party dominance is the key to long-term political consensus and coherent policy-making, and they see Democrats' attempts to reach out to them as a sign of weakness that they would be foolish not to attack with everything they have.
Contrary to the whole structure of lies celebrating the bipartisan ideal, divided government is a field day for anti-democratic, backroom deal-making that is the very antithesis of what democracy is supposed to be all about. It's a field-day for the 1 per cent, a field-day for special interests. As a temporary corrective, when one or both parties have lost their way, divided government has played a useful role in American history.
But the unprecedented, prolonged dominance of divided government over most of the past 40+ years is a profound symptom of political breakdown, which in turn has given rise to countless other ills. So long as President Obama continues to confuse the problem and the solution, he won't have a ghost of a chance to deliver the sort of significant, lasting change that he seemed to promise in 2008, and that many still hope for - both in the United States and all around the world.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.