All I can say is that I agree, and many of these are reasons why I am helping with the Modern Whig Party.
Bury the Hatchet
Today’s festering unhappiness with politics is a product of the plummeting faith in politicians and political institutions that pollsters have tracked since the 1970s and the escalating spiral of cynicism and despair that has accompanied it. Intense partisanship among politicians, vicious political battles in the media, and nasty electoral campaigns coexist with extensive citizen apathy and pathetically low voter turnout.
By contrast, our political ancestors often approached the political game in better humor and with a closer attachment to political life. Political skirmishing involved citizens in at least the most basic acts of democracy, especially voting. But today, many Americans are bystanders left choking on the fumes of partisan combat. Our politics suffer from the paradox of strong partisanship combined with weak parties.
The rise of media politics has spawned a new breed of freelancing politicians who excel at demanding attention rather than working behind the scenes to get things done. These showboaters entertain or scare voters, often by affirming their common political identities. Problem solving invites reason, compromise, and, ultimately, mutual respect; identity building invites posturing, passion, and, ultimately, intolerance.
Despite being less powerful and more responsive to public opinion, parties brimming with edge but lacking a mass membership base produce further division and alienation. Party links tend to serve as convenient labels rather than defining allegiances. The modern mix of culture and politics has made party identity combustible and polarizing. Fortunately, no single issue like slavery divides the nation. Americans are more “purple” than the red-blue narrative suggests.
Parties are now the political equivalent of professional sports teams. Individuals root themselves hoarse for their side, even occasionally confronting rival fans, but few save the pros actually play the game. Increasingly, parties seem less like armies of concerned citizens than coalitions of angry ideological and economic interest groups. While political scientists may hail the rise of intense partisanship as a spur to political activism, the interest-group jockeying only feeds the popular impression of politics as an insiders’ game.
At the same time, an increasingly odious money game pollutes the whole spectacle. Beyond branding, candidates most appreciate the party infrastructures as fundraising vehicles.
Citizens become spectators. Headline-driven news emphasizes the extremes, the fights, the hysteria, the sensational. Political reporters, trying to appear objective by quoting two opposing sides to almost every story, mostly sharpen the differences, slighting any centrist position. The news media have for decades broadcast the shrillest voices from the pro-life and pro-choice movements, for example, even as most Americans have accepted a centrist position, disliking abortion theoretically but being too pragmatic to outlaw it. The media’s Kabuki theater may not always sway Americans, but it demoralizes and distances them.
There are, however, signs of backlash. The two major party nominees of 2008 both rose to prominence by criticizing the political status quo, though as they consolidated their positions and charted strategy in the summer of 2008, the forces pushing for more partisanship prevailed.
Leaders willing to demand centrist government and less alienating politics are rare. Moderation is not considered sexy; bipartisan initiatives are frequently deemed boring. Ironically, it has been left to a media celebrity to fill part of the yawning gap in the middle. The comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has become a hero to young Americans—and one of their primary sources for news—by throwing off partisan shackles and mocking the system. Stewart skewers Republican incompetence, Democratic impotence, and media irresponsibility with equal intensity. He says his comedy comes “from feeling displaced from society because you’re in the center. We’re the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation.”
The American political tradition is pragmatic and centrist.
Our greatest presidents led from the center, seeking the golden path of national unity. George Washington inspired Americans to rally around their “common cause.” Even at the nation’s moment of maximum political extremism, Abraham Lincoln moderated the abolitionists’ antislavery fervor to keep the wavering border states fighting for union. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s big-tent New Deal incorporated some changes radicals demanded while preserving capitalism. These leaders understood that a democracy, resting on the consent of the governed, requires citizens to buy into politics. They were not namby-pamby wafflers, but muscular moderates, rooted in core principles but nimble, confident, and patriotic enough to compromise when necessary.
Muscular moderation from our leaders, and a renewed faith among citizens, requires a new American nationalism, with national identity trumping party loyalty.
We will start reducing the tension and reviving some faith in politics when we have leaders who understand that they must lead from the center, uniting Americans around core values and ensuring that politics are once again about being rooted in community and solving problems, not just rooting for one set of culture warriors over another.