In math, or more accurately in statistics, the outliers or the extremes always affect the mean (or the average). So too, today, in American politics. It seems the outliers (the extreme fringes) have greatly affected, even crippled, the center (the mean). It was axiomatic for a long time in our country that, in politics, a candidate who ventured too far from the center did so at his or her own peril. We have been or were for a long time, traditionally a centrist country. Sometimes center-right and sometimes center-left, but essentially, centrist.
Not so today. The statistical mode in our troubled electorate, that is, the largest cluster of voters on a graph showing the distribution of all voters, is coalescing well to the left or to the right of center in our body politic. To be unambiguous, that’s probably very dangerous because zealots generally ruin any cause.
Yes, yes, we appreciate that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” (with thanks to the late Barry Goldwater), but we’re not writing about such pithy principles in this essay. We’re referring to jingoistic MAGA on the right and naïve embrace of Kumbaya on the left. Today, Extremeville is the place to be to garner attention in the American political arena, indeed, perhaps in most countries today in the western world.
It is not a new phenomenon. We’ve seen this rush to the fringes before in history, and it rarely ends well. When populations are troubled they generally do not seek comfort or guidance at the center of the political spectrum. To the contrary, they see little that is comforting at the center. That’s where they’ve been, not where they want to stay. Those who dominate the center are seen as the elites—as the others, unlike us, in command. Political opportunists from outside of the mainstream recognize this, and the strum and drang of political cross currents play out in a perpetual tug of war between the left and right. This invariably paves the way for newcomers, outliers, and often, troublemakers to gain currency.
So, today, the jabber of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Warren on the left and Trump and his acolytes on the right dominate political discourse in America. They reach America through a veritable super-charged bullhorn while everyone else vying for attention struggles with a weak varsity cone-shaped megaphone. Among Republicans here in America, right-wing nationalists and populists have been ascendant, as is true in Europe almost everywhere.
Among Democrats, the far-left commands most of the energy and attracts most of the money. Bernie Sanders is a proud socialist and his support is young, determined and robust. Elizabeth Warren’s call for structural change and Medicare-for-all is pretty much a mirror reflection of the Sanders positions with the only difference being that he proudly admits he is a socialist and she doesn’t. The rest of the Democratic voters, those who can’t bring themselves to embrace socialism, have pretty much coalesced around Joe Biden.
Donald Trump, historically, has not been either a committed rightist or leftist. He has been, rather, a committed opportunist. He has changed his party affiliation five times. He was a Republican in 1987, then left the Republicans and registered as a member of the Independence Party in 1999, and in 2001 he changed his party affiliation to Democrat. Then he returned to the Republican Party in 2012 before the runup to the 2016 election. Certainly not the profile of a life-long Republican. He liked Hillary and Bill Clinton “very much” in 2012. In 2012 he gave Obama high marks for the way he handled the economic crisis during the great recession. Two Administrations ago, he specifically supported universal healthcare going so far as to say what kind of country are we if we don’t take care of our sick. He was also a strong supporter of a tax on wealth then and, believe it or not, he was also “very pro-choice.”
But that was then, and this is now. Now, America, like Europe, has moved to the right and Trump, no longer a centrist has jumped on the bandwagon. He has taken all of those former rather liberal ideas and jettisoned them all. He is now the quintessential hard-right politician. He, like so many other politicians in the West, has vacated the center. He is a perfect example of how the extremes affect the mean in politics. He has not taken the country to the right. He merely read the tea leaves better than everyone else in the 2016 presidential race.
If there is a Republican position on controlling deficits we haven’t heard it for a long time. Runaway federal debt; who cares? Free trade; what is that? Like Professor Harold Hill, President Trump is simply leading the big parade. And the Party he leads has willingly become the trombone section.