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For a vital center

I read a story in the newspaper this Sunday and felt that I had to comment on it because it was so important.  It was called “A Nation Divided? Who Says?” and it was written by John Tierney.  Here’s how it begins.

WASHINGTON� If you’ve been following the election coverage, you know how angry you’re supposed to be. This has been called the Armageddon election in the 50-50 nation, a civil war between the Blue and the Red states, a clash between churchgoers and secularists hopelessly separated by a values chasm and a culture gap.

That’s true.  I’ve heard all these things, and they just confuse me.  That’s not the world I live in!

But do Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow citizens? Have Americans really changed so much since the day when a candidate with Ronald Reagan’s soothing message could carry 49 of 50 states?

Golly, I hope not.  I remember 1984� we were happy then.  We were unified.  Everything was pretty calm and soothing. There weren’t any unpleasant arguments that I can recall.

To some scholars, the answer is no. They say that our basic differences have actually been shrinking over the past two decades, and that the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside the Beltway talking to each another or, more precisely, shouting at each other.

These academics say it’s not the voters but the political elite of both parties who have become more narrow-minded and polarized. As Norma Desmond might put it: We’re still big. It’s the parties that got smaller.

Now this is where I really began to think-- it’s so true.  It was one thing when the GOP was taken over by guys like Tom DeLay, and the White House was run by one of the most far-right crackpots ever to stagger out of Wyoming.  But then when the Democrats started shouting too, I think it turned everybody off.  Take that Waxman fellow� what’s he on about?  He sounds to me like he’s trying to start a fight.  And the way Ted Kennedy was arguing with John Ashcroft the other day, I just had to turn the sound down.

Most voters are still centrists willing to consider a candidate from either party, but they rarely get the chance: It’s become difficult for a centrist to be nominated for president or to Congress or the state legislature, said Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“If the two presidential candidates this year were John McCain and Joe Lieberman, you’d see a lot more crossover and less polarization,” said Professor Fiorina, mentioning the moderate Republican and Democratic senators. He is the co-author, along with Samuel J. Abrams of Harvard and Jeremy C. Pope of Stanford, of the forthcoming book, “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.”

“The bulk of the American citizenry is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the cross-fire while Maoist guerrillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other,” the book concludes. “Reports of a culture war are mostly wishful thinking and useful fund-raising strategies on the part of culture-war guerrillas, abetted by a media driven by the need to make the dull and everyday appear exciting and unprecedented.”

It’s about time somebody had the courage to say this.  The media have been fanning the flames of discontent ever since John Kerry called for the collectivization of American farms and mandatory abortions for all pregnant women.  If only Joe Lieberman had been the nominee!  But no, Democrats with their manic hate-Bush rhetoric have hitched their wagon to a guy who advocates arranged gay marriages, nationalized day care, a $12/hr minimum wage and a 100 percent inheritance tax.  It�s like living in someplace like, I don�t know, El Guataragua or Panador, with all the guerrillas and the death squads.

And then what’s all this squabbling about “torture memos”?  Republicans want torture.  Democrats want no torture.  Where in this debate is there any place for a good decent centrist who can split the difference and bring the nation together over the principle of some torture?

Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, reached similar conclusions in his 1998 book, “One Nation, After All,” which called the culture war largely a product of intellectuals.

“Compared to earlier periods - the Civil War, the 1930’s, the 1960’s - our disagreements now are not that deep,” Professor Wolfe said last week. “Indeed, it is only because we agree so much on so many things that we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking we are having a culture war. When one of society’s deepest divisions is over stem cells, that society is pretty unified.”

I have a friend who insists that Alan Wolfe can be counted on, in articles like this, to say the most annoying, triangulating, Liebermanesque things you can possibly imagine.  But in this case, I think Professor Wolfe is right: when 98 percent of the country supports stem-cell research, and it’s blocked by a tiny handful of fundamentalist Christians who grant nine-day embryos the moral status of living humans, that’s really quite a luxury.  We should be happy that we agree on so much, down deep.  Besides, stem cells are really very tiny things.  You can hardly see them!  We’re really quite lucky we are to live in a society that “sweats the small stuff.”

If only those Democrats weren’t such a bunch of loudmouthed extremists.  They’re just as bad as the Republicans, if you ask me.  It’s about time somebody spoke up for the rest of us. 

Posted by on 06/15 at 03:30 AM
  1. Well, I had made my peace with the fact that you’re going on holiday sans computer and then you go and post this wonderful skewering of the vital center, and I’m already wondering how I’ll get through the next two weeks sans Berube. (I have no accent marks that I know of on my keyboard)

    Thanks for pointing me to those chapters from Public Access that are online; don’t know how I missed them.

    Best wishes for a fine holiday to you and family. (Having read “Life As We Know It...” it’s a delight to be able to keep up with the later adventures of Nick, Janet and Jamie as chronicled here)

    Posted by Leah A  on  06/15  at  07:18 AM
  2. Yes, thanks for skewering this most banal and idiotic dumbing down of the issues.  The thing that disturbed me most was that Kevin Drum had a post where he basically agreed with this pablum.

    Posted by  on  06/16  at  12:13 PM
  3. Paul Glastris rather nicely put the smackdown on the idea that both sides of the political spectrum are equally blameworthy for the rise in political extremism in this month’s Washington Monthly.

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