For most of our 240 years, the American people have generally avoided the mad dog of extremism. America’s two political parties today, not so much.
While that might seem like a contradiction, it really isn’t. In America, many, perhaps most, political candidates have traditionally campaigned well to the right or well to the left of center. Still, they have generally tacked back toward the center once in power. After all, we have, with few exceptions, generally been a centrist country. Candidates, of course, want to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Once in power, however, cooperation becomes essential in a constitutional democracy such as ours, a democracy with a bicameral legislature.
Research demonstrates that Americans have, in the past, rarely embraced the political extremes. We had remained rooted pretty much at the center, some center-right, and some center-left. That has been our strength. Not so today. Our political parties, or at least those politicians within the parties who command the lion’s share of print, broadcast, and social media time and space, often campaign from the outer reaches of their respective parties. Firing up the base is, after all, as American as home-baked Apple Pie.
Not so long ago, political opponents campaigned by making a case that they could best address the issues that most concerned the voters. Those issues are well understood. People want a decent shot at economic security, affordable healthcare, and a chance to retire with dignity. During the Nixon-Kennedy debates, both candidates acknowledged that each wanted what was best for the country, and each explained why he would be the better president to achieve those goals. Today’s political debates are more akin to cage fights where each candidate looks to draw blood for the kill.
Too many campaigns plot to convince voters that the opposition will bring despair and the destruction of America as we know it. Political candidates campaign like a not-so-endearing Professor Harold Hill, warning about deadly trouble in River City, and inciting voters about all there is to fear. Selling fear works, and there is always a grab bag of issues about which voters might be legitimately concerned. But when political rhetoric is based mainly on focus-group determinations or other research demonstrating where and how fear can be conjured, then you can bet fear will be conjured.
Bill McInturff, who founded the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies seemed to sum up where we are pretty well. “I am not sanguine about a national campaign that tries to find a middle ground on major cultural issues as being viable. We are in a “no compromise” era, and that’s not changing anytime soon,” says McInturff. And he is probably correct. The hard work of political organizing takes place well to the left and right of the center. The moderate middle or center is large, but not as well organized as the left and right wings of our two-party system. Compromise is simply not in the air.
While the vast majority of Americans simply want their government to work, the vast majority of political rhetoric today is not about making government work better. Instead, the campaigns are about convincing voters that their government is their enemy, that it doesn’t work—at least not in the hands of the political opposition. As fast as one can say anti-establishmentarianism politicians on the left and on the right campaign to denigrate their opponents rather than sell their vision of a stronger and more equitable America.
Today, as in the past, when voters are asked what issues concern them the most, they almost always talk about economic security, retirement security, and the cost of healthcare. These are the things about which people really care. Still, the constant political din in the background assaults the senses with endless ranting about race, crime, gay rights, trans rights, abortion rights, and other divisive issues. These are all issues that deserve intelligent understanding and reflection, but they are used as trigger issues to engender fear and distrust, if not heated anger. Politicians understand that the media will give these personal and contentious issues more time and space than the humdrum issues that put food on the table and assure that those who are ill will find affordable care. Divisiveness as a political strategy often works at swaying votes but at a terrible price.
To be sure, there have always been strident voices on the campaign trail. But, today, those voices have become a constant drumbeat warning of a lurking calamity being shepherded by the political opposition. Not so many years ago, such negativity might have appeared as an editorial in a local newspaper, perhaps counterbalanced by an opinion piece in a competing newspaper. Today, voters are besieged with political negativity coming at them from talk radio, highly partisan cable television, and all manner of social media where three-quarters of the country now consumes endless rants from trolls and self-styled provocateurs disguised as serious people with serious counsel to convey.
These political performers are selling calculated discord and divisiveness on a scale we’ve never seen before. As a result, the mood in the country has grown churlish and grouchy. The Pew Research Center has studied the country’s mood and found that about 80 percent of American voters today believe that the election of the other side would be calamitous to our country. This is scary stuff. Our two political camps have become more like seriously warring enemy camps, each dedicated to the belief that calamity awaits us if the opposition prevails at the voting booth.
This is not politics as usual. These are campaigns of destruction. The country has evolved from a labor-intensive economy toward a new reality where machines labor and think and learn and perform numerous tasks. Concurrently, we have a rapidly changing demographic landscape, and these new realities have created a circumstance ripe for demagoguery and divisiveness.
We are off balance and whether or not we will regain our equilibrium in time to restore comity to life in America is uncertain. Commentators and politicians on the far left and the far right spare no opportunity to enrage their followers. They are like Fido growling and chasing after the car. They might just catch it. It won’t be a pretty sight.
As it is written: he that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. Proverbs 11:29