The Death of the Center: Welcome to the Age of Political Nihilism

Aug 04 2010 Published by under Featured News, Republican Party

Oh where, oh where has the center gone? Those of us who appreciate a little common sense and moderation in our politics lament the polarization of the American political landscape over the past twenty years or so, and are you like me in feeling a sense of loss?

Glaringly – one might say painfully – obvious as it is now, this polarization didn’t begin with the election of Barack Obama, or even with George W. Bush’s tainted election in 2000, but can be traced back to the petulant conservative rejection of Bill Clinton’s election after twelve years of Republican rule (the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush). The conservative backlash was vicious and Clinton was the victim.

He was literally hounded out of office.

The forces of Reaction are fiercer still after two years of the Obama Administration.

Once upon a time, there was an America where politicians would seek to find consensus on issues, who would be willing to compromise in order to get things done – quid pro quo. We can’t all get everything we want, but we can get some of it, and some is better than nothing.

That used to be the philosophy, at any rate. Welcome to the Age of Political Nihilism.

At some point conservatives came to believe their own rhetoric that liberal politics were bad for America. And not just bad as in not-helpful, but destructive. This led to a demonization of the left. Progressives, we learn, have started every war in history; they are cockroaches and parasites and all liberals are guilty of treason. Joe McCarthy is suddenly a hero rather than a demagogue.

We’ve all heard the talk.

Bad as it is, perhaps even worse was in store for moderates within Republican ranks. Last year’s talk of a “purity” test highlighted the issue, and the rise of the Tea Party and its rhetoric of hate have only given impetus to a trend that seems increasingly childish in context.

They want “their” country back. And if they can’t have it, they seem to be saying, nobody can.

The problem for America and for Americans is that you can reach across the aisle much more easily if the chairs are close together. When you put a moat with spikes at the bottom in between, and when you push your own people into it for even talking across the aisle, let alone shaking hands, it tends to close off the possibilities of working towards a consensus. And isn’t consensus building at the heart of politics?

Compromise, however, for a party with purity standards is heresy. They have not only walled off liberals and progressives and labeled them as the constructed other and as dangerous to America, but they have walled off and labeled themselves as well, as being a group who won’t compromise with those they say want to destroy America.

Now that they’ve painted themselves into a corner with their divisive and nihilistic rhetoric, how do they find a way to take that reach across the aisle, if they ever realize they need to?

They’d look like fools now, wouldn’t they?

This is the logical outcome of twenty years of illogical Republican politics. Is this the goal they were working towards all along, or didn’t they bother to think about the future they were creating?

The Republicans are victims of their own hate. We are all victims of their hate.

How can you even hope to talk to the other side in any meaningful way when you have publicly demonized them by the rhetoric of division and exclusion: “real” Americans, “un-American” “un-patriotic” and the current favorite, “terrorist” or “terrorist-friendly.” These terms are used against any liberal politician, and any conservative who doesn’t use them is not a “real” Republican.
Liberals are now spoken of in the same vein as the Bubonic Plague. They should be slapped around, terrorized, and killed.

Am I alone in seeing that this rhetoric makes dialogue difficult?

This polarization is real and it is debilitating American politics. It is harming both the country and its people and by association, the world at large. A country is the sum of its parts and if one part opts out of governance we can expect no good to come as a result.

But rather than focusing on the need to move closer together, the discourse centers around the need for Barack Obama to move further right or further left. If any sitting president in recent years has been a centrist, it is Barack Obama. Far from being the leftist ideologue he is accused of being by the right, he is a left-leaning centrist who seems to take a pragmatic approach nowadays not understood by the Astroturf and grassroots activists.

So we get on the one hand the disjointed Tea Party, an extreme right-wing fringe movement funded and supported by zealous conservative organizations, and on the other, a new progressive movement that can be as ideologically hidebound as its foes on the right. The helpful response to right-wing extremism is not left-wing extremism but a move towards the center, a place to where hands might still reach each other, if only to touch fingertips.

As a liberal (and I realize this is heresy), I think a centrist party would be more helpful to America right now than a progressive party. Yes, there is a lot that needs doing, and a great many evils arose in particular during the eight years of the Bush Administration, and no, centrism should not equal complacency, but if left and right persist in painting each other as evil and therefore unworthy of dialogue, and compromise is treason, then what hope is there for the country?

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