Jim Leach, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former 15-term Republican Congressman from Iowa, has the perfect formulation for why the middle has disappeared in American politics, while the most out there elements in both parties continue on the rise.
Leach was in Boise last week as part of his national crusade to stress civility in our public dialogue and in our partisan politics.
In between his stint as a Congressman – Leach joked that his constituents invited him to leave – and his tenure at the NEH, he taught at Princeton. While there he developed what he calls two minute courses on American history and politics. One mini-course he entitled Politics 101.
Politics 101 begins with the recognition that the American electorate is roughly divided into thirds – one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, one-third independent. Then, realize that in primary elections, like the one recently in Idaho, only about 25% of registered voters participate in selecting a party’s nominees. This 25% is generally made up of the most ardent party faithful; the true believers who also tend to be the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. Furthermore, in some states with party registration, independents play no role in selecting the partisan contenders, effectively giving these self-defined “middle of the roaders” no role in defining who carries the partisan banners.
So, by Jim Leach’s formulation, as we slice the electorate ever more finely in party primaries, we get down to about one-sixth of the total population making the big and basic decision about who goes on to a general election. In Idaho, winning a GOP primary is, in most places, the election and its often decided by a tiny fraction – the most partisan fraction – of the electorate. The recent Democratic primary in Idaho featured the smallest percentage of participation in many years.
Under this basic political arithmetic, no wonder most Republicans are tacking to the right and Democrats to the left. If they look and act like moderates – moderates like Jim Leach during his years in Congress – they get, in the vernacular of modern politics, “primaried.” And, just like that, the middle of American politics has ceased to exist.
A Republican like Bob Bennett in Utah or a Democrat like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas plays Russian roulette if they dare to work across the aisle. One of the great charges against Bennett, a three-term senator, was that he worked with Ted Kennedy and dared to supported the bi-partisan Wall Street bailout that, by the way, occurred on the watch of a GOP president.
Leach quoted – perhaps not altogether in context, but the words do ring – the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” where the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Our fractured politics stand to get worse, I fear, because self preservation in the human and political animal is such a powerful force. It takes a remarkable man or woman to try to appeal beyond the fringes of either party. The center is a dangerous place now in politics, but it has always been where real things get done.
Politics 101 today equals friction and faction. The middle not only hasn’t held, it has disappeared.