Contra Yeats, the center is definitely holding—at least if you are President Barack Obama.
Politico today lays out Obama’s apparent strategy to hold the American political center by co-opting Republican moderates and leaving what’s left of the Republican Party at the mercy of its Southern and far-right elements. Exhibit A is the recent appointment of a moderate Republican congressman (John McHugh of New York) for Army secretary.
[I]t’s also hard to find a choice better calibrated to meet the Obama administration’s political imperatives. All at once, Obama has selected a nominee who burnishes his bipartisan credentials, opened up a seat prime for Democratic pickup and drained the GOP reservoir of one of the few remaining Northeastern moderates. It’s an event that’s happening with enough frequency to suggest the presence of a design, a plan that not only sketches the outline of a reelection strategy but manages to drive a wedge into the opposition at the same time. Call it a Sherman’s March in reverse—an audacious attempt by Obama to burn down any lines of escape for Republicans from their one refuge of popularity, the deep South.
This is all well and good for Obama and Democrats, and is even arguably a triumph for contemporary centrist politics, but it makes me wonder what happens to the country in a time of extremity. Should the Democrats be embroiled in scandal, or should there be a major terrorist incident which Democrats handle poorly, or should the economy fail to revive, the electorate would be in the position of having to choose between an unpopular political party and one suffused primarily with energy from far-right extremists and religious theocrats.
Ironically, a victory for centrism today could result, say, a decade from now, in the electoral revival of the authoritarian right. Translation: A government even more extreme and prepared to leap into torture policies and wars than was George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s.
I thus read this quote from the Politico article not especially enthusiastically, but as a double-edged sword:
“Boxing the Republicans into a South-dominated party is very good strategy, because the more you reduce the Republican Party, the more conservative and reactionary it will become, and thus less attractive to moderates,” said Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor and the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.”
But what happens if moderates become sympathetic to authoritarian politics as a way out of a large national impasse? They’ll have someplace to go, won’t they?
The point you’ve made above is a good one. I hope there is no revival of this brand of Republicanism. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else all these radicals will go.
I have a question for you that is off topic. Can you recommend any thinkers, conservative, liberal, or other, who have criticized American liberalism (the democratic, progressive vareity) from an expressly populist perspective? E.g. from a perspective that reacts against the notion of “limousine liberals” and those who disparage common, middle-Americans. In particular, I’m looking for anyone (someone actually sophisticated) who argues contrary to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? book. I’m sure you are familiar, but Frank suggests that conservative, middle-American notions that coastal progressives are often smug elites is a myth used to muster Republican support. I’m looking for anything that argues even roughly in the opposite direction, but preferably not something that would ever be on Rush Limbaugh’s bookshelf. I know that some of Chomsky’s stuff could be construed along these lines–although his critiques tend to be less cultural, and more economic. Of course, I assume that you probably would strongly disagree with such a perspective, but I thought you might have some ideas.
From my vantage, there seems to be a confluence of large forces pushing the Republican Party into a “far right” corner. Ironically, those two forces appear to be fighting one another, but are in fact working towards the same end: Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama. Both want to see the Republican Party go as far to the right as they can push it. And these two forces appear to be overwhelming those who might be trying to offer a contrarian force toward the middle. We may rue the day that the Republican Party lost its centrist wing.
As for books. I think that the books below might temper, or at least put in perspective, the tension between the secular and liberal urban coasts v. “heartland” areas of the country. And ironically, most of what I would suggest is more about European history than American. I think, however, that the problems and tensions are similar to our own:
—Michael Burleigh’s “Earthly Powers.” This is a book on the tensions between religion and politics in Europe from the French Revolution to WWI. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
—Doestoevsky’s novel, “Demons” (or “Devils”) is a critique of intellectual hubris.
—“The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr” is a book that contains (from my vantage) the best defense of religion that I know of, and why progressive politics divorced from transcendence and ultimate meaning is problematic.
—“The Weimar Republic Sourcebook” (I think that Weimar faced a lot of the same issues that we face today, and the rhetoric surrounding those debates echoes the way we talk today).
—Eric Voeglin’s “Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.”
—Camille Paglia’s non-literary essays tend to be critiques of liberal presumption from a person normally associated with liberalism.
—Anything by Isaiah Berlin.
—John Gray’s “Black Mass”.
From my vantage, these are some of the things that temper and complexify—and even make sometimes problematic—my own liberalism.
Again, I recommend Burleigh’s book especially.