in Kulturkampf

The Center Cannot Hold

I could not bear to watch the final Republican debate. One of my Twitter correspondents — a sweet-tempered Alabamian named Jill who identifies with neither party, and so considers herself part of the middle — asked me why not. I answered with some notes about the crisis of modern conservatism: trapped in a fact-free fantasy world, the dominant political philosophy of the last three decades can no longer answer any major problem we face. The GOP nomination process has devolved into idiots scoring zinger points.

Jill describes herself as conservative; in fact, my correspondent is a liberal, and does not know it. She has been conditioned to reject the word. So let us now restore its true meaning: liberals make liberal use of evidence and theory to arrange the broadest good. Liberalism does not idealize the biggest possible government, but rather the best. Government has no inherent moral goodness: only the use, misuse, or abuse of government has moral impact.

This is in contrast to conservatism, which is defined by suspicion of, and resistance to, change. Conservative politics have in fact become little more than advocacy for a great rolling-backwards: to the Gilded Age, the Civil War, segregation, and every Lost Cause of American politics. Indeed, the litmus test of conservative politics is willingness to undo Roe v Wade. Gay marriage is another battle the conservative movement appears to be losing. Michele Bachmann wants to bring back incandescent light bulbs. These days, conservatism doesn’t mean smaller government so much as government-mandated regression.

Liberalism is not the opposite of conservatism — that would be progressivism, which sees government as a channel of positive change. I am progressive because I am liberal. I am also conservative on some issues because I am liberal. Liberalism is the opposite of ideology. Conservatism and progressivism are ideologically-driven movements.

Occasionally I get asked why there is no third party for this liberal middle. There used to be one; it was called the Democratic Party. But the American middle has been eaten away, and so has the party, by three decades of  disorganization, discontent, and disinformation.

Democrats accepted conservative economic orthodoxy in the 1990s, first with the election of Bill Clinton and then the conservative takeover of Congress. Back in those heady pre-internet days, FOX News was talk radio, which constantly blasted the word “liberal” as an epithet and attached it to every imaginable issue. Classical liberal economics have been re-labeled as “conservatism,” and liberalism turned into a bogeyman.

Rush Limbaugh has made an entire career out of lumping “the left” and “liberal” together until they have become synonymous, but they are not. A liberal makes decisions on empirical evidence (“the science says climate change is happening”) or emotional attachment (“be kind to animals”). Liberals do not identify with a party so much as their perceived independence of party.

This is why liberals like Jill can be mushy on a ‘litmus test’ issue — say, abortion. Most pro-life slogans (abortion stops a beating heart) are appeals to emotion. Yet Jill is not an absolutist; she expresses reservations about the pro-life extreme too.

“Liberal” is the center. Anyone who tells you anything else is trying to make you stupid.

The success of modern conservatism is that it has almost destroyed this liberal center of our politics. The ideological purity of Republican ranks is increasingly mirrored in the Democratic Party, where the zone of acceptability is shrinking. Nobody wants a Blue Dog anymore: you’re either with us or against us.

But it isn’t simply that politics are “polarized” between two extremes in our winner-take-all system. American society has been atomized: unions have been destroyed by offshoring and so-called “right to work” laws. Yesterday’s communities of interest — Rotary clubs, the American Legion, you name it — are mere shells of their former selves. Churches used to be hotbeds of liberalism; today, they are hot zones of virulent conservatism.

In this environment, tea parties were supposed to be the arrival of “true” conservatism; you’ll remember the GOP rationalized its losses in 2008 as punishment for not being conservative enough. For the conservative movement, 2010 was supposed to be different: at last, the party is listening to us. But it is the same Republican Party and the same movement, only worse than before.

George Lakoff has demonstrated that Americans can be divided into thirds, with the middle third switching back and forth according to how politicians communicate with them. This is where the so-called “swing voter” emerged in American politics, but in fact white suburban voters had been “swinging” further and further from the liberal center of American politics for years — and they slammed shut like a door in 2010.

Drawn like metal filings to the magnetic forces of culture politics, the so-called Reagan Democrats declared themselves Reagan Republicans after all. Encouraged, teapublicans immediately turned their efforts to dismantling what is left of the liberal structures that support the American middle. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal, Scott Walker’s union-busting, and budget showdowns are all about tearing down liberal democracy to defeat liberal Democrats.

Today’s Republican Party promises that we can reach free-market Nirvana if only we complete our national self-destruction. Against that, America has a Democratic Party that cannot come together on anything.

Democratic operative Paul Begala has decried the absence of unified talking points in the party, but he admits to rejecting talking points when provided them because he prefers to think independently. As Will Rogers once joked, the Democratic Party isn’t an “organized” party — and never has been.

Unsurprisingly, Jill does not see a reason to vote for any Democrat. She might decide to vote for the Republican next year, or she may find Republicans abhorrent but not vote at all instead of supporting Democrats. The Republican candidates trading barbs on stage would be fine with that, but the rest of us — Jill included — stand to lose.

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