An end to polarization?

The great Michael Barone wonders whether we are nearing the end of polarization in our politics. In support of the view that we are, he argues that the leaders contenders for president in 2008 — Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain — are in significant tension, and in some cases outright opposition, with their parties’ bases.
It’s worth pointing out that the three contenders Barone cites are “leading” in spite of any distance between themselves and the party base. Clinton is in front mostly because she’s the activist wife of a popular former president. Giuliani is in contention because he was the mayor of the primary target of 9/11 and responded well. If McCain is in heavy contention, it’s because of his stature and personality.
However, this observation doesn’t really undercut Barone’s thesis. If our politics are as polarized as some suppose, then centrists, no matter how prominent, shouldn’t be sitting in the pole position for presidential nomination.
But questions remain. With respect to the Democrats, the question is whether Clinton actually is in real tension with the party’s base and will remain so into 2008. It’s true that she hasn’t adopted the strident pacifist posture of the Democratic left. But neither did John Kerry. His pacifism was inferred from his past actions, not from anything that he consistently said during the presidential race.
It’s not clear how much has changed with the Republicans either. In 1996, which falls within Barone’s period of polarization and should, they nominated Bob Dole, a pragmatist. In 2000, George Bush did not present himself as a traditional conservative. Still, Barone is correct that the nomination of a candidate like Giuliani (who opposes the party’s socially conservative agenda) or McCain (who opposes much of its economic agenda) would mark a change. But it would signal a significant diminution of polarization only if the candidate were able to hold onto enough of the base to win the general election.
JOHN adds: I’m not sure Giuliani and McCain are front-runners in any meaningful sense, either. The Republican rank and file haven’t begun to think about 2008 yet; when they do, alternatives to Giuliani and McCain will emerge.
This is what is more interesting to me, however: it is clearly true that we are living in an age of polarized politics, but it is not obvious why. While left and right are constantly accusing one another of being extremists, the truth is that extremism in contemporary American politics is rare. Bill Clinton was a bona fide liberal and George W. Bush is a legitimate conservative, but neither they nor the vast majority of their supporters are as liberal or as conservative as their predecessors of a generation ago. No Democrats talk about nationalizing industries, and no Republicans talk about abolishing Social Security or Medicare. Whether the maximum marginal tax rate at the federal level should be 40%, as it was at the end of the Clinton administration, or 35%, as it is now, is a serious public policy issue; but it is frankly ridiculous to denounce proponents of either view as extemists.
Even in foreign policy, I don’t think Republicans and Democrats are as far apart as they might seem. Democrats are violently opposed to the Iraq war, I think, because it is being conducted by a Republican. If the President were a Democrat, the Democrats would support the war just as they did every one of Clinton’s military adventures. In other words, I don’t think liberals hate George Bush because of the war; I think they oppose the war mainly because they hate George Bush.
Why such inflamed passions should exist in a time of relative consensus on political issues is a curious question, to which I have no answer.
PAUL adds: I think most liberals really do oppose the war. They would have tolerated it at first if a Democrat had sent in the troops, but they would be tolerating it less and less by now. Don’t forget that Clinton’s mililtary adventures were carefully designed to avoid any real sacrifice.
As to why the inflated passions exist, perhaps it’s because America really is seriously split about some very fundamental matters. One such matter is religion. Another is whether the U.S. is and has been a force for good, such that it should continue to act on its own, rather than being reined in by the “international community.” Our political process, which tends to reward centrism or its appearance, often masks these differences when it comes to specfic policy issues (and that’s probably a good thing). But it can’t mask the underlying passions.


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