That Elusive Center

I’m torn.

I recently agreed to serve on the advisory committee of ReCenter Indiana alongside several people I like and admire. It is a bipartisan organization with laudatory goals.

Convinced that  “divisive Indiana politicians don’t represent Hoosier values,” the organization wants to elevate candidates who “represent the center, where most Hoosiers are.”

As ReCenter’s website argues, “the loudest and most extreme voices have drowned out sensible solutions,” a situation that has taken faith in government to an all-time low, making it critical that we restore “trust, respect, and accountability to our political system.”

Importantly, the organization defines “centrism” as behavior, not ideology– a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue with those holding different views, a willingness to negotiate in good faith and to compromise to achieve solutions that serve a majority of their constituents. It defines moderation as an attribute of character, not ideology.

The website identifies ReCenter’s values as

●      People over parties;
●      Results over rhetoric;
●      Patriotism over politics.

ReCenter’s political action committee intends to endorse candidates of both parties who display centrism/moderation defined in this way.

It is hard to argue with any of this, which is why I agreed to join the advisory committee. But I am increasingly concerned that the unprecedented nature of today’s American polarization will defeat these very reasonable–even noble– goals.

When I first became political “back in the day,” both of America’s major political parties were what I would describe as ideologically expansive. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and although the GOP was essentially center-Right and the Democrats were essentially center-Left, there were few if any philosophical “litmus tests” determining partisan affiliation.

That has changed–and the change threatens to foreclose our ability to negotiate our differences in good faith.

There are two contemporary realities that I see as barriers to the laudable goals of ReCenter Indiana and a number of other well-meaning political organizations.

The first is the effective sorting of voters between a political party and a cult. A recent example was highlighted by Pew research. Pew found that Americans support the continued availability of medication abortion by a margin of nearly 2 to1. The report of that survey result, however, also noted a “stark divide in partisanship in Americans’ views of the issue.” Virtually every respondent who opposed abortion was a Republican.

It isn’t only abortion. Public opinion on a wide range of issues has found a significant majority of Americans holding a range of relatively progressive opinions–while those holding minority far Right and/or extremist positions are clustered in the GOP. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that–no matter how one defines “moderation” and “centrism,” it is rarely to be found in today’s GOP.

That doesn’t mean there are no moderate or reasonable people left in the party, and ReCenter’s mission to identify candidates rejecting extremism so that those moderate and reasonable people can vote for them–especially in primaries–would make perfect sense, if it wasn’t for a pesky second reality. 

The cult that is the contemporary Republican Party is autocratic. It does impose litmus tests–and those tests require adherence to extremist and anti-democratic positions. The rare Republicans who put people over party and patriotism over politics are promptly ejected from positions of influence–Congresspersons Cheney and Kinzinger are gone, while Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and their ilk have increasing prominence in the House of Representatives and the GOP.

Here in Indiana, the legislature’s radical super-majority is firmly in the thrall of the rural White Christians who–thanks to gerrymandering– still elect them.

So–here is my dilemma: how do those of us who agree with ReCenter’s definition of moderation and centrism– those of us who applaud efforts to return our state and country to a saner, more civil politics–accomplish that?  We live in a time when an organization formed to identify civil, reasonable candidates is likely to omit most Republicans–and a time when any that we do find are highly unlikely to influence the current trajectory of the GOP.

I am increasingly convinced that the only way America will emerge from its current divisions is a massive electoral defeat of the GOP, leading to its subsequent reformation or replacement. That conviction is at odds with the very laudable mission of  ReCenter.

Several of the people who comment on this blog are obviously highly intelligent, articulate and creative, so I’d appreciate the posting of practical solutions to ReCenter’s challenges.  

I shared the draft of this post with ReCenter‘s officers, and invited their response. It will post tomorrow.


What’s The Matter With The GOP?

Remember Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank took a hard look at that state’s politics and political culture and drew some conclusions that engaged the punditry for months.

More recently, the “chattering classes” are focusing on a somewhat similar question: what is the matter with the GOP? (I know, I know–everyone reading this has multiple responses, incorporating varying degrees of hostility.) Ezra Klein recently considered that question more analytically, in an essay in the New York Times titled “Three Reasons Why the GOP Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams.”

As he began,

For decades, the cliché in politics was that “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” The Democratic Party was thought to be a loosely connected cluster of fractious interest groups often at war with itself. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” Republicans were considered the more cohesive political force.

If that was ever true, it’s not now. These days, Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart.

Klein considered, and dismissed, several possibilities: after all, small-donor money, social media and nationalized politics also affect Democrats , who have responded very differently.

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008, but rather than exiling the Clintons to the political wilderness, he named Hillary secretary of state and then supported her as his successor. In 2020, the party establishment coalesced behind Joe Biden. When Harry Reid retired from the Senate, he was replaced as leader by his deputy, Chuck Schumer. When Bernie Sanders lost in 2016, he became part of Schumer’s Senate leadership team, and when he lost in 2020, he blessed a unity task force with Biden. Nancy Pelosi led House Democrats from 2003 to 2022, and the handoff to Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark was drama free.

So why has the Republican Party repeatedly turned on itself in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t?

Klein offers three possibilities–all of which are clear contributors to the present chaos.

The first is the long-standing and awkward alliance between donors and the party’s ethnonationalist grass roots. You can see the conflict playing out in attitudes toward immigration–businesses need immigrants for a wide variety of reasons, while the Christian Nationalists who dominate the party base want to keep Black, Brown and non-Christian people out. As Klein notes, the party elders who once moderated between those factions have “outsourced” most traditional party functions– fundraising to PACS and messaging to  right-wing media–and can no longer act as mediator.

So that’s one explanation for what happened to the Republican Party: It’s caught between a powerful business wing that drives its agenda and an antagonistic media that speaks for its ethnonationalist base, and it can’t reconcile the two.

The second reason is that the memberships of the parties has changed.

Republicans are increasingly the non-college party. When Mitt Romney got the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. was basically split between college and non-college whites. That’s gone. The Republicans have just lost a huge chunk of professional, college-educated voters — what you would have thought of as the spine of the Republican Party 40 years ago has just been sloughed off.

Today’s Democratic Party is now the party of the cities and the suburbs. The GOP  has  become more rural and more non-college educated, less invested in social stability and institutions, and much more inclined to rock the boat.

The morphing of the once “Grand Old Party’ into whatever it is today (a comprehensive label escapes me) offers us a third reason for the GOP’s internal chaos:

When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, “it’s not the Democratic Party.” His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.

“The anchor of Democratic Party politics is an orientation toward certain public policy goals,” Sam Rosenfeld, author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era,” told me. “The conservative movement is oriented more around anti-liberalism than positive goals, and so the issues and fights they choose to pursue are more plastic. What that ends up doing is it gives them permission to open their movement to extremist influences and makes it very difficult to police boundaries.”

Klein points out that opposition to communism once kept Republicans committed to a positive vision of the role of government.

There is an irresolvable contradiction between being a party organized around opposition to government and Democrats and being a party that has to run the government in cooperation with Democrats.

Bottom line: Today’s Republican Party is a tribe of people who are against–against Democrats, against “woke-ness” and “elitism,” against diversity, against change, against government.

No wonder it can’t govern.


Politics Kills

The Washington Post recently ran an article with a provocative headline: “Can Politics Kill You? Research Says the Answer Increasingly is Yes.” Here’s the lede:

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its third full winter, two studies reveal an uncomfortable truth: The toxicity of partisan politics is fueling an overall increase in mortality rates for working-age Americans.

In one study, researchers concluded that people living in more-conservative parts of the United States disproportionately bore the burden of illness and death linked to COVID. The other, which looked at health outcomes more broadly, found that the more conservative a state’s policies, the shorter the lives of working-age people.

It turns out that it is state-level policies that determine these health outcomes. States — those “laboratories of democracy” so often lauded by more conservative politicians– shape the environments in which we live our lives in more ways than we commonly recognize, and those environments have a significant effect on people’s well-being and longevity.  As the article notes,

Some states have expanded their social safety nets, raising minimum wages and offering earned income tax credits while using excise taxes to discourage behaviors — such as smoking — that have deleterious health consequences. Other states have moved in the opposite direction.

Indiana is one of those “opposite direction” states.

Covid death rates were 11 percent higher in states with Republican-controlled governments and 26 percent higher in areas where voters lean conservative. Similar results emerged about hospital ICU capacity when the concentration of political power in a state was conservative.

Researchers from Harvard found that the disparities in rates of  death and disease aren’t limited to COVID: In states where a “chasm of inequality” persists, communities of color face a much higher risk of chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable to multiple serious diseases.

Another  study calculated that, in 2019, if all states had implemented liberal policies on the environment, gun safety, criminal justice, health and welfare, labor, marijuana, and economic and tobacco taxes, at least 170,000 lives would have been  be saved. On the other hand, if states all had conservative versions of those policies, 217,000 more people would have died.

It’s likely to get worse in those Red states, thanks to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

With abortion services no longer legal nationwide, university researchers have estimated that maternal deaths could increase by up to 25 to 30 percent, worsening the nation’s maternal mortality and morbidity crisis. Americans live shorter lives than people in peer nations, in part because it is the worst place among high-income countries to give birth.

The stark differences between Republican and Democratic responses to COVID may have  benefitted Democrats politically, as well as medically.

Some midterm election postmortems suggested that the significantly higher numbers of Republican deaths had  diminished Republican turnout sufficiently to help Democratic candidates win tight races. While most knowledgable observers discounted that likelihood, or opined that it operated only in extremely close contests, researchers did identify a less obvious way in which COVID death rate disparities benefited Democrats politically.

Per Politico:

Data from the U.S. Postal Service and Census Bureau shows how the pandemic drove urban professionals who were able to work remotely — disproportionately Democrats — out of coastal, progressive cities to seek more space or recreational amenities in the nation’s suburbs and Sun Belt. This moved liberals out of electoral districts where Democrats reliably won by large margins into many purple regions that had the potential to swing with just small changes to the map.

Politico looked at several close races in places that had gained population during the pandemic–races that seemed to confirm that hypothesis. One was in Arizona.

In one of the most watched 2022 races, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — an ardent election denier and so-called Trump in heels — was expected to narrowly defeat Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. FiveThirtyEight simulations gave her 2-to-1 odds and a 2.2-point margin.

But Arizona’s most populous region, Maricopa County gained nearly 100,000 people since 2018, and Democrats’ margins rose by 17 points since that year. Lake lost by just 17,000 votes.

A major study published by the National Bureau of Economic Researchers concluded that there was a “substantially higher excess death rates for registered Republicans when compared to registered Democrats, with almost all of the difference concentrated in the period after vaccines were widely available.” Overall, the study found that the excess death rate for Republicans was 76%, higher than the excess death rate for Democrats.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of vaccine efficacy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis–object of the GOP’s current enthusiasm–  is ramping up his vendetta against vaccination. DeSantis is a perfect representative of today’s GOP, a party peddling policies that really are killing people.


Coping With Uncertainty

There is a genre of op-eds/”guest essays” that I generally don’t read: the “what my [parent/relative/meanest boss] taught me about [life/politics/persistence/etc.]  It isn’t that this particular approach to self-help isn’t interesting or useful–these reflections are often quite thoughtful. But given the number of information resources we all receive, most of us need to pick and choose the materials we actually access and consider, and my priorities are elsewhere.

I made an exception to my usual practice a week or so ago, however, for a guest essay titled “What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living.” I’m glad I did, because the “lesson” the author conveyed really applies to a great deal more than our individual lives; it is directly relevant to the contemporary political environment.

The author of the essay reported that, as she was trying to come to terms with her father’s imminent death, she had asked her wife about the wife’s experiences as a social worker.

What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.

She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.

“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.

This conversation struck me as profound, in ways that go well beyond the prospects of a loved one’s life or death.

I have long been convinced that living in the modern world requires one absolutely essential skill above all: the ability to tolerate ambiguity– a recognition that authentic “bright lines” are rare, and that large areas of our lives will necessarily be lived in shades of gray.

The inability to cope with moral and political ambiguity explains so much of what is wrong with today’s politics. Americans today are faced with questions that don’t have easy or obvious answers. That reality goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of bizarre conspiracy theories–such theories provide “answers” to people who find the lack of certainty intolerable. That inability to abide uncertainty also helps explain the evident need of so many people for identifiable “bad guys.”

The need for certainty partly explains the “reasoning” of people who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good–either X is without fault, or he is unworthy of support, no matter how much worse Y might be. Their discomfort with nuance and complexity requires  an “either/or” world–not one in which progress is incremental and white knights rare.

In a very real sense, America’s political parties have sorted themselves on the basis of tolerance for ambiguity: today’s Democratic Party, whatever its faults and failures, grapples with and argues about the world’s complex realities, while the GOP responds to that complexity with “certainties” that have either been discredited by repeated real-world evidence or invented out of whole cloth.

What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.

Are there several interrelated causes that are thought to contribute to California’s wildfires?  Too complicated; it must be Jewish Space Lasers. Do job openings available to me require skills my parents’ generation didn’t need? People of color willing to deploy those skills are being brought across the border to replace me. Are my children embracing strange new ideas that are at odds with what I was raised to believe? It’s attributable to a “woke” culture that accepts same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

See? There are clear answers…They just aren’t rooted in (or even in the vicinity of) reality.

Later in the essay, the author addressed that all-important but elusive ability to live with uncertainty.

There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.

I would go further than “buoyancy.” I would identify the ability to function thoughtfully and purposefully in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world as absolutely essential to life in the 21st Century.


Negative Partisanship

Us versus Them–tribalism– seems to be a constant in human nature. It’s a primary motivator of war, a significant element of policymaking, a constant of religious strife–and the primary tool of campaigns to get out the vote.

Political polarization and what political scientists call “negative partisanship” get more people to the polls than reasoned appeals based upon policy promises.

I still recall a conversation with another politician back when the GOP was still a political party and not a theocratic cult; I had criticized one of our candidates , and he responded  “He may be a nutcase, but he’s our nutcase.” It was a perfect expression of what has since become the defining trait of the Republican Party. (Democrats—being far less cohesive–are somewhat more forgiving of intra-party criticism.)

Time Magazine article written after the first public hearing held by the January 6th committee considered that insistence on group solidarity as it is currently being applied to Liz Cheney.

In GOP circles, two things are true at once. First, large majorities of Republican voters disapprove of the January 6 rioters. At the same time, large majorities still approve of Donald Trump, and Liz Cheney—the Republican most prominently intent on investigating and exposing what happened—is less popular with Republicans than renowned conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene.

In fact, Cheney might now be the least popular Republican in the entire Republican Party, in spite of her consistently conservative voting record and her support for Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020. The reason is simple. She has violated the prime directive of negative partisanship. Even if she’s right to be upset by the riots, she’s attacking her own team. It’s the responsibility of GOP politicians to always, always train their fire on the left.

And that rule–that your guns must always be trained on the other guy–is why, as my kids might say, we Americans can’t have nice things.

Negative partisanship is a simple concept with profound implications. At its most basic, it means that “the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.” When negative partisanship dominates, a political coalition is united far more by animosity than policy. The policy priorities are malleable and flexible, so long as the politician rhetorically punches the right people.

Negative partisanship is why Republicans in the Senate voted against the PACT Act after voting for it–in identical form–just a few weeks earlier. (They did grudgingly reverse that vote in the wake of a huge blowback.) The vote had absolutely nothing to do with the Act itself, and everything to do with a spiteful “We’ll show you!” response to the deal hammered out between Schumer and Manchin.

Negative partisanship helps explain Republican acceptance of conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The same polling that shows Cheney underwater with Republican voters shows Green with a slight positive rating, despite her constant stream of utterly bizarre and baseless claims. As the article explains, she fights the left, and the left despises her, and for millions of Republicans that’s all it takes to earn their approval.

Negative partisanship also played a significant role in America’s vaccine hesitancy. Republicans were literally willing to risk death in order to “own the libs.”

Of course, Democrats disapprove of Republicans just as much as Republicans detest Democrats. But people like me, who would love to see the current hostilities replaced by genuine efforts to work across the aisle, are stymied by the reality that today’s parties are not morally equivalent. Germany really was an “evil empire” in the thirties, and the current GOP really has morphed into something other than a traditional, flawed political party.

And that something is malignant.

We Americans who live in what the George W. Bush administration dismissively called “the reality-based community”  find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. We don’t want to paint the entire GOP with a broad and unforgiving brush, but we also don’t want to be so naive that we ignore the very real threat posed by a party now dominated by White Christian Nationalists and wacko conspiracy theorists.

Can that scorned “negative partisanship” come to our rescue?

If Democrats were to turn out in Kansas-like numbers this November–spurred by the GOP’s unremitting attacks on constitutional  liberties and democratic norms–a historically-improbable midterm defeat might begin the process of returning the GOP to its roots as a political party. As the Time article put it, the threats to America’s constitutional order currently come from the Right–and it’s the Right that must put its house in order.

If that happens, Americans of good will can focus their efforts on combatting tribalism and negative partisanship. If it doesn’t, all bets are off….