17 May 2010

Interview With John Avalon About Wingnuts and Politics

The Economist: Democracy in America: Six questions for John Avlon
A wingnut is someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum—the professional partisans, the unhinged activists and the paranoid conspiracy theorists. They’re the people who always try to divide rather than unite us.

In this environment, there is no such thing as too extreme and political entertainers use conflict, tension and resentment to fire up their audience. What’s different now is that while political leaders used to give talking points to talk radio, now talk-radio hosts are giving talking points to political leaders. It’s all part of the suffocating spin cycle we’re in. In media, politics and publishing, the conventional wisdom is to play to this base.

But I think in the long run this creates an opportunity for a real alternative—only 15% of Americans define themselves as conservative Republicans and 11% call themselves liberal Democrats, according to a Pew survey released last year. That means that there is a massive untapped market in America for something other than bitter and predictable partisanship.

Independents are the largest and fastest growing segment of the American electorate. There are more independents than Democrats or Republicans, and their numbers have reached over 40% of the electorate—an historic high. This is a direct reaction to the polarisation of the two parties. If you study independent voters on an ideological spectrum, they are consistently between the Republican and Democratic parties, which are more polarised than ever before. But its not a simple split the difference position—independents tend to be closer to Republicans on economic issues and closer to Democrats on social issues.

There is a mainstream of views that runs beneath independents. Of course, there are outliers—conservatives who are too conservative for the GOP and folks on the far-left who are off the grid entirely. Nonetheless, independents more closely mirror the American people as a whole than either party—they feel politically homeless, but it’s an exile on main street.

DiA: Do you anticipate the end of the two-party system? (If so, how do you see it playing out?)

Mr Avlon: Not in the near term, but the two parties should consider themselves put on notice by the American people. They can’t indefinitely ignore the fact that a plurality of Americans are proactively rejecting them. In the past, the two-party system was able to correct itself, with opposition parties reaching out to the centre and reviving themselves politically in the process. But the special interests controlling both parties now are not allowing this to occur—the religious right blocks any substantive outreach to libertarian-minded voters on social issues, while the power of groups like public-sector unions makes the Democratic Party inhospitable for fiscal conservatives.

If you’re fiscal conservative but socially liberal, as many independents and centrists are, you’ll find that the parties are hostile to your full participation, and in fact we’ve seen an increase in RINO hunting and DINO hunting (attempts to ideologically purify the parties by purging centrists). Eventually this disconnect will be resolved or it will rupture.

Whatever scenario, social media is a new tool that could help such a realignment take place. One impact of the internet on our economy is that it disaggregates middle-men. That’s what the parties essentially are—they were enablers of democracy but they are increasingly obstacles to it.

Our constitution doesn't mention political parties. They are still playing politics by industrial-age rules. They haven’t woken up to the information-age reality. Younger generations have grown up with a multiplicity of choice on every front, which can be tailored to suit their individual beliefs. Politics is the last place where we are supposed to be satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.

Hat tip: Poli-Tea.

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