No More Moderates! No More Diversity!

David Gergen and Michael Zuckerman:

(CNN) — As this election season unfolds, we are watching an age-old dream in politics go horribly smash. It isn’t good for politics, and it sure isn’t good for the country.

President Franklin Roosevelt helped to fire up the dream during his second term in office. Coming off a massive landslide in 1936, he believed that it would be far better for governing if the Democrats became the liberal party and Republicans the conservative one. In the 1938 congressional elections, he barnstormed across the South trying to purge the Democratic Party of several incumbent conservatives. His efforts backfired — the incumbents won and were sore at FDR — but the dream became a staple of politics.

In 1950, for example, in one of the landmark studies in political science — one still read today by undergraduate majors — some of the best minds of the day argued strongly that the nation would benefit from more ideologically “coherent” parties: that things would be better if Democrats stood firmly for a liberal ideology and Republicans for a conservative one.

That way, people would have clear choices, they would know what they were voting for, and they could count on their party delivering if it were in power. “Shoo out those racially suspect Sunbelt conservatives from Democratic ranks and those lily-livered Northeastern liberals from the GOP. And maybe some of those moderates, too.” So the thinking went.

Well, in recent years, we have seen the dream come true. And guess what? It is producing a mess. As each of the parties has moved toward ideological purity, our politics have become ever more polarized, our governing ever more paralyzed. Extremists increasingly run the show….

As of 2010, there were as many as 54 Blue Dogs, but the midterms knocked their caucus down to 26. With retirements and primaries, that number will probably be well below 20 by next January — an effect that further turns Democrats into the party of the left.

Some activists — conservative Grover Norquist among them — argue that over time, this purification will be good for the U.S. But so far, the task of governing has gotten much tougher, and what little trust is left among the parties is evaporating. As the parties become more ideological, it’s easier to demonize the other side and harder to rationalize working with it — both to your colleagues and your constituents. Woe to be you in your next primary if you have consorted with the enemy.

Under heavy pressures for party conformity, legislation by nature becomes a more partisan undertaking. Hard to believe it now, but big programs like Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, or tax and Social Security reform in the 1980s, passed with broad bipartisan support.



"I will only change this a bit, cos I'd like to upvote this many times...(Father, ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Not to mention that Moses was educated by the Egyptians. Do we consider...the Hieroglyphics writing, ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Let this sink in...."Which is to say that many of the secular communities in America ..."

Wade Burleson And Paige Patterson
"I was very upset about Rick Patrick's horrible post. He seems to have done a ..."

Thank You Rod Dreher, Shame On ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RJS

    I dont know if this is right or not … but if it is argh…

  • Spot on! And both sides accuse only the other side of being extreme.

  • Mark Brown

    Sorting happens when there is an issue that is considered morally core by a substantial group but not a problem by an opposing group. And it will stay that way until victory for one side or the other – either political in that an opinion is no longer possible to be held (monarchy, slavery, segregation) or from civil war (remember your Clausewitz, war is politics by other means). My bigger question is what if being pro-life ends up being an opinion that you can no longer politely hold (i.e. political victory for current D’s)? What does that mean for the US?

    That and Gergen just crying about how he the ultimate moderate hasn’t been called to serve in an administration since Clinton.

  • Clay Knick

    Thus politics becomes nothing but “group think.” If you are a Demo. then you must be for abortion, if Repub. then you must be for lower taxes. You must vote with the block each time. Sick. I don’t think the Founders had this in mind.

  • Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at U of Virginia, addressed this issue in a recent book, “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” From a social psychologist viewpoint studying human morality, the basis for divergence between political parties is a different emphasis by D’s and R’s on each of six parts of a moral matrix. Both parties have made their particular amalgam a sacred trademark justifying about any tactic against the other because it is a matter of what is correct or wrong (“righteous” or not). There is no room for “compromise” (Democratic word) or for finding “common ground” (same meaning but Republican word). These combative attitudes in politics, and into society, are also being found in the church. I am in the process of reviewing this material in a discussion of identifying humanistic thinking in the church — thinking that is arguably a carryover from natural human evolution.

  • DRT

    can someone verify that this was conscious?

    It makes sense, but I thought it has been a natural change….more or less

  • DRT


    I think Haidt’s analysis is very good, but the problem I see is that someone has tried to make it deterministic and not just descriptive. The short view of it, in my mind, is that we have grouped people between those who are going to band together because of their group and those who band together because of the ideology. That is absolutely frightening to me, as someone who bands because of ideology, because it takes the actual issues out of the game and now it is just about tribe loyalty. Yikes!

  • C

    I agree. I believe this is quite possibly the single worst modern political development for the American people. Everything is a matter of principle. “Compromise” is a dirty word, and “moderate” is a slur.

    And the worst part is, voters buy that crap. We’ve been played, and most of us don’t even know it. Politicians have already given us the answers by the way they frame the questions. Ideas that lie outside the received conservative-liberal spectrum are simply beyond the plausibility structure.

    When will we bring all voices together, put everything on the table, and begin finding creative solutions we all can live with?

    A great deal of the blame, I think, lies in the nature of the presidency and its policy-making role that began, in a large part, with FDR. If the president will step back from policy, we can elect a courageous leader, a statesman who will facilitate a rigorous and vibrant, visionary and practical national conversation around the issues we face. The “president” ought to “preside,” giving adult supervision, if you will.

    But for as long as the president is piddling around in the political fights, presidential elections must necessarily follow ideology and policies.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know… I kind of think pieces like this that paint politics of the past as being less divisive as a type of myth-making. American politics has always been cutthroat. Even if you look at some of the very early presidential elections, you have the candidates accusing each other of some of the most horrible things they could think of.

    I’d say the one thing that might be different now is the sheer amount of money it takes to run for office in the country. In order to attract donors, you have to convince them that you’re one of them. That’s when ideological purity comes into play.

  • Joe Canner

    Phil, if you’re defining divisive by the amount of mudslinging and vitriol, then you’re probably right. After, all the Hamilton-Burr duel occurred more than 200 years ago.

    However, if you define divisive as the amount of ideological separation between the parties (as I think this article is attempting to do) there have been studies that quantitatively document the recent increase in partisanship by looking at how often politicians vote with the opposite party.

  • DRT, Bill Bishop makes the case in the “Big Sort” that forty years ago the idea of finding common ground was a much stronger societal value. While politicians did have ideological bents they also used to campaign on their record of being able to compromise and get deals done. You tried to carve a majority vote out of the centrist right or the centrist left depending on the party.

    Bishop talks about Carl Rove having used a strategy that relied on firing up the ideological fringes and moved away from seeking a less fired up, but more broadly supportive, coalition. Rove didn’t invent the idea but he was masterful at executing it. Others on both ends of the political spectrum have been perfecting his work.

    I heard a discussion this week about the budget. It used to be that one side put a budget on the table. The other side countered with their budget. Then politicians horse-traded to get to something tolerable. The Simpson-Bowles report is reminiscent of that strategy. IMO, it is the most sensible thing I’ve seen in years. But it has been completely ignored because there is no way for either side to score political points with their radicalized bases.

    And Bishop’s point is that we are not just sorting ideologically but we have been physically sorting ourselves into echo-chambers in terms of where we live and what public spaces we occupy. And regrettably the church conforms to this as well. The over identification of Mainline denominations with the political left in the mid-Twentieth Century gave rise to Evangelical over identification with the political right. Now younger Evangelicals growing up in a time when the Evangelical right-wing has been ascendant, assume their experience has been the norm forever. Their answer is to mobilize a leftist religious response, unwittingly (I believe) mimicking the basic core ideology Mainlines were articulating forty years ago. The pendulum swings again. The answer is a Christian community that isn’t deeply tied to political parties and can frame issues for broad community dialog. But I think it was Mark Twain who observed that the only thing we learn from history is that no one every learns anything from history.

  • Jeremy

    Sounds a lot like India’s Partition…that was a bloody mess we’re all still paying for.