07 May 2007

Could the Center Hold?

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We Americans seem to be a people politically adrift, simultaneously clinging to and resisting the labels we self-apply so readily. Depending on where you live, what you believe, or who your friends are, the words “liberal” or “conservative” might be said with a rather dismayed expression. We are a country of Christian Conservatives, of Blue Dog or Yellow Dog Democrats, of Rockefeller Republicans, of Clintonistas and Bushies and Defeatocrats and Warmongers and all else besides. (Just about the only thing we aren’t these days are Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys or Neo-conservatives, and that is largely because the Monkeys turned out to be better predictors of the future of the Iraq war than the Neocons.) So it makes all the sense in the world – right? – that the nature of American politics begins as a race out to the left- and right-fringes, followed by a dash to the middle. Which is why it also makes all the sense in the world that a few folks try to occupy the center from day one, or that some other folks would get together to start a part of the center, called Unity08.

Yawn. Could anything be more boring and less inspiring than a party of the center?

Over the weekend, I read through Reason magazine’s “Presidential Scouting Reports,” from their June 2007 issue. [Not yet online, but check here for it soon.] Subtitled “A libertarian’s guide to the World Series of politics,” the authors crunch through the leading candidates from both the Democrats and the GOP, giving rather accurate summaries of the candidates various strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of “voters who care about liberty.” It left me with two distinct feelings. The first, and most immediate, was my own repetition of the line Reason used at the end of the first candidate, that of Senator Hillary Clinton: “No wonder we feel sick to our stomachs.” Actually, gentlemen, the whole field – left and right – is fairly nauseating.

The second feeling was a newly-awakened interest in, of all things, the politics of the center. What I don’t mean is the center a là Unity08. That might more accurately be called the “middle ground,” a safe political terrain based on positions carefully designed to significantly-but-partially satisfy large numbers of people. Inevitably, the candidates who secure their respective parties’ nominations will wind up being compromise choices, doing strategic double-talk to various constituencies designed to convince their True Believers that they are fellow travelers, while soft-pedaling the tough stuff for the on-the-fence audiences they need to convince. An example of just one result of all this mish-mash is the “Compassionate Conservative” Bush, and I think we know how disastrous that has been.

What if, however, America was offered a party that sat comfortably at the center, ideologically? Could there be such a thing? “Liberal,” perhaps, in the true (now European) sense of the word: fiscally conservative but socially flexible? Instead of arbitrarily deciding positions based on a composite of views or an ever-present faux-pragmatism, we need a party that lives in the center as a result of the consistent application of ideology, of logically-argued perspectives based on core beliefs.

In some terribly awkward sense, we may have such a party, but it needs – of all things – a political makeover. The Libertarian party in the U.S. could, if it wanted to, claim the political center; not the middle ground, but the ideologically-based political center. Americans are not really a bigoted bunch, but they can be made afraid, and it is these fears that both the Democrats and the Republicans prey upon: fear of attack, fear of financial insecurity from over-taxation, fear of financial insecurity from an eviscerated welfare system, etc. The Libertarian focus on freedom is an antidote to most of these issues, neither weak on security nor militarily-bullying about how other countries should be run, not prone to tax increases or to overly-dictating how one’s tax dollars should be spent...

...Well. It is sometimes difficult to picture how a small government society might function; we are so trapped in a big government world that most of us literally cannot imagine it. Lefties think about the loss of the New Deal safety net, but cannot imagine that society might have learned something from the Great Depression beyond just the need for ever-present government intervention. Conservatives worry about the projection of American power, or whatever they worry about – keeping Terry Schiavo alive? I’m not sure – but things that also require a big, activist government (even though they say that they don’t want that).

Despite this, we should try to picture a different kind of American future, a world in which citizens have both greater freedom and greater responsibility – and where the governments’ issues and problems are rather more limited. Because what we have here is not just a failure to communicate, but a failure to think. As I wrote back in August of 2005:

As with so much political activity, then, the actions and beliefs of the conservatives and liberals often come down to opportunism: where and how can they most effectively achieve their aims, and what aims are best within that specific context. But opportunism as a political philosophy is extremely limiting, leading to short-term decisions with long-term impact – and forcing a continuing series of struggles over political party leadership because the issue-of-the-day continues to change. Instead of being fearful of the growth of American political perspectives, we should embrace this diversity; more parties can lead to more active political voices, and to a more thoughtful and thorough public debate of important issues. Instead of shying away from one set of power structures or another, instead of retreating behind lobbyists or large-scale ad campaigns, or financial power-brokers, American politics would improve with a more effective opportunity for real dialog, for real openness and debate, of which there is precious little.

Maybe the Libertarians are not capable of holding the center. All I know is that the Republicans and the Democrats are not offering satisfying choices, only poor comprises.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home