Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Decline of the Political Center

When the Wall Street bailout bill went down to defeat in the House two days ago, it seemed as if almost everyone was surprised by the turn of events. What surprised me was that anyone thought the bill had a chance to pass. I was astonished that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would bring the bill to a vote so early, not really giving anyone time to study the language of what they were voting on, and without having a legitimate floor debate in which the vast majority of House members who disliked the bill could at least vent their frustrations. I guess she thought she could ambush them. But really, Pelosi and Bush need to get out of their offices a little more and talk to some of the other people in Washington so that they’ll have a better sense of what is politically possible. Pelosi and Bush can sit down at a table with a handful of other so-called leaders and agree to agree among themselves, but if they are agreeing to go in the opposite direction from the direction the rest of the country is going in, all they accomplish is to isolate themselves from the real world.

Those were my thoughts after the carefully negotiated giveaway program Pelosi had shepherded was defeated. But I have talked to many people about this, and I understand now why people were so surprised by the way the vote came out.

The political points of view in America sometimes split out into three blocs, which people call left, center, and right. These blocs differ in their views on the basic idea of responsibility. The left leans toward an idea of social responsibility, or taking care of people. The center sees responsibility as something to be assigned, negotiated, bought and sold in the manner of a business deal. The right sees responsibility as a more private matter, belonging mainly to each individual as a matter of free will.

One of the assumptions deal-makers in Washington have made in the past is that the center bloc can never lose. The center bloc is often the smallest of the three blocs, but it has a pivotal role. Usually the center bloc can get either the left bloc or the right bloc to go along with whatever it decides. Sometimes it is half of the left bloc and half of the right bloc who vote with the center bloc. It scarcely matter how it works out as long as the votes are there. The center bloc can go ahead with its plans, confident of success, without having to bother to check what the left bloc and the right bloc are thinking.

Or so they thought. And that is why Pelosi and other Congressional leaders didn’t bother to count votes to see if their negotiated package made political sense. They were in the center. How could they lose? But lose they did, defeated by a chorus of nos from both sides.

How can the left and right blocs suddenly agree on things and vote down an initiative from the center?

It’s not really so strange when you consider that the left and right blocs both believe in principles — and, to a significant extent, the same principles. For example, left and right agree on a concept of basic fairness and a concept of order and stability. The center likes fairness and stability too, but they won’t let principles stand in the way of their method of businesslike negotiated problem-solving, or deal-making, if you will. But if the center goes too far in abandoning principles to reach a deal, the left and right can stand up together and say, “Hey, wait a minute. This deal you’re offering doesn’t have any principles in it.” And that’s what happened here.

Some observers think there is a sea change going on in politics that will increasingly leave the center out in the cold. David Sirota says it is a popular uprising in his book The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. The book came out in May and seems remarkably prescient when you set it up against the events of the last two weeks.

Yesterday, Sam of Vote Pact argued that the recent trend is toward a historic realignment in American politics. Already, far more voters agree with the positions of Ron Paul, on the right, and Ralph Nader, on the left, than agree with either John McCain or Barack Obama, in the center. Voters may not know about this, of course, because the media does not follow Paul, Nader, or other independent and third-party candidates. But I saw someone comment on Sunday, apparently assuming that the bailout would pass, that if Ralph Nader and Ron Paul agree that the bailout package is a disaster, then we are all in big trouble. The meaning of that comment is that Nader and Paul stand for principles, even as they disagree on priorities. So if Nader and Paul agree that a plan is a terrible mess, it can only be that the plan goes against the basic principles that make things work, regardless of what priorities you want to apply.

I was surprised to learn that five Presidential candidates have “agreed with a set of principles around foreign policy, privacy, the national debt and the Federal Reserve.” They could agree on these principles because they are common-sense principles that most of the voters in the country would agree with. Yet these are principles that the two center bloc candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, are running against, inviting voters to hold their noses and vote for one of the two.

Just as it is assumed that the center always wins in Washington, McCain and Obama are running on the assumption that the closer they come to parroting a center position, the better their chances of winning. Yet principles are important too. Obama’s idealism and energy accomplish nothing if there are no principles behind them. McCain’s maverick approach, or his willingness to compromise on anything, provides no direction unless there are principles that guide him in which compromises to make. Of course, both candidates do believe in principles, but they are doing their best to hide them so that they will appear more centrist. The theory is that the one that is closest to the center will win. My prediction is that the opposite will hold true in this election: that a candidate who appears to stand for something, a candidate with a spine, will be the winner.

One reason I am sure something is changing is that I have heard from voters who have spent their entire adult lives voting in just one party, up until now. Something happened in September to make them say they are now going to start voting on issues. Combine these brand-new issues voters with the voters, angry at being effectively disenfranchised, who are ready to vote against any incumbent, and things could really change in this election. Of course, these voters are not numerous enough to turn everything upside down, at least not at this point, but they could provide the margin that decides hundreds of races across the country. A popular uprising? It might, at least, be enough of a change to persuade politicians that not standing for anything is no longer the safe way to run for office, or the safe way to vote once elected.