MAXWELL:  Little difference between parties is no real choice

8/6/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Confrontation fits our strategy,” a leading Washington policymaker said in the June 3, 1985 issue of the New Republic. “Polarization often has very beneficial results. If everything is handled through compromise and conciliation, if there are no real issues dividing us from the Democrats, why should the country change and (vote us into office)?”

Powerful words. Who do you think spoke them?

None other than Wyoming’s own Dick Cheney, the man George W. Bush picked as his vice presidential running mate; the same Cheney who, until his formal nomination in Philadelphia last week, had concealed his predilection for red meat issues; the same Cheney who is being portrayed as a mild-mannered conservative who even gets along with his enemies.

In my estimation, Cheney had the right idea about party politics and governance in 1985. The new Cheney is as phony as the GOP, which is portraying itself as a “big tent” _ the party of “inclusiveness.” Since 1985, and partly as a result of the Newt Gingrich legacy that brought us the now-infamous Contract With America, the nation’s politics is folding into the dead center, a squishy realm where consensus-building and bipartisanship smother genuine debate.

I must acknowledge that when Gingrich was touting the contract and being generally nasty, I was part of the pundit crowd calling for so-called civility and bipartisanship. I no longer believe that consensus-building is such a good thing for the long-term health of American democracy, especially during this period of prosperity and relative peace. The culture of democracy is more efficacious when the parties stake out ideological territory and fight for what they hold dear.

Today, mien is more important than real ability and experience. Personality is more important than policy. I am beginning to believe that George Wallace, who ran as the third party candidate against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, was right when declared that “there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference” between Democrats and Republicans.

During a recent National Public Radio Weekend Edition segment, host Scott Simon, focusing on this year’s presidential election, spoke with Williams College historian James McGregor Burns about our new rush to the center. Burns is noted for his lifelong study of presidential leadership.

Simon asked the professor for his views on politicians’ claims that they need to get to the center to get elected and that they need to get to the center to govern.

“Well, I think they’re right, in terms of getting toward the center in order to get elected,” Burns said. “The question is not getting elected; the question is governing the American people, leading the people. And the more they compromise in the election and after in government, the more it seems to me that they’re not really leading. In my view, what the American people really want is a choice. They want a meaningful choice between a significantly conservative and a significantly liberal candidate, and they’re not yet getting that choice in this election, though I think things are improving.”

Although Vice President Al Gore is far more experienced in most areas than Gov. Bush and has articulated sharper positions on, say, education, Burns believes that the differences between the candidates are marginal, even indistinct in some instances.

Even though we have had periods, such as the New Deal and the Great Society, in which bipartisanship has been good for the greatest number citizens, most often it is, in Burns’ view, “injurious to a democratic society because the more you get bipartisanship, the more you prevent the people from having the kind of significant choice they need. And the other trouble is every time you have bipartisan policy, you’re weakening the policies in order to get that agreement, as well as I say, not giving the American people a real choice.”

Burns considers Franklin Roosevelt to be the quintessential ideologue whose strident, partisan rhetoric was a positive force. Today _ given our penchant for flawless scripts, pleasant voices, pretty faces, platitudes and bromides _ FDR would be denounced as unnecessarily divisive.

“(FDR) set a standard for making elections significant,” Burns said. “And one thing that we biographers of Roosevelt can never forget is how willing he was to take on the Republicans, say, in 1936 when they were denouncing him for being a Communist or a Socialist or whatever. And he stood up in Madison Square Garden and he said, “They hate me and I welcome their hatred.’ And he made the election of ’36 into a real test.

“Now I would be the first to grant that we don’t have such crisis times today in terms of overt problems, but there are fundamental problems which should be dramatized. And if a candidate really took a strong position on education, the environment, taxation, the other big problems, they would sound strident. And I don’t think stridency is a problem in an election campaign. The president should have enemies. . . . Yes, I do believe in very vigorous two-party politics as basic to the the health of a political system.”

As much as I moaned about the Contract With America, I now appreciate the fact that Newt’s document posited 10 concrete stances that Republicans supported and Democrats opposed. The war was on. When the dust had settled, voters saw more than a dime’s worth of difference between the ideological imprimaturs of the jackass and the elephant.

Right was right, and left was left _ none of that so-called pragmatism that amounts to nothing more than caving in for the sake of expediency.

“Wedge issues aren’t cutting the way they used to,” writes Nicholas Lemann, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of a book about meritocracy in America. “Democrats are now against high taxes, welfare, crime and big government. Republicans are for public education, environmentalism, Social Security, Medicare _ and, in most cases, legal abortion. The new consensus has been forged through heavy (even by the standards of modern American politics) use of public-opinion polling.”

In addition to its being inimical to democracy, consensus-building _ especially when it is driven by opinion polling _ is an economic barrier to the poor and minorities. They get left further behind. Let me explain. Political consensus is established only for the middle class, whose values and worship of individualism and material possession define our national character. Few middle-class voters empathize with poor people, especially those whom University of Pennsylvania urban studies director Michael B. Katz calls the “undeserving poor.” The middle class does not give a damn even about what William Julius Wilson dubs “the truly disadvantaged.”

As Roy Hattersley wrote in the New Statesman, “Inequality is considered essential to economic success and some people say that the poor have a vested interest in the rich getting richer. . . . The prosperous classes have discovered new ways of insulating themselves from the consequences of other people’s poverty. . . . Modern techniques of polling and political manipulation enable a self-confident middle class to demand and, in the absence of ideological politicians, to achieve a consensus built around their own interests. For the middle classes are the target voters whose support makes the difference between election and defeat.”

Each party is tripping over itself to grab the white middle class, and each is using polls and focus groups to establish the illusion of bipartisanship, of being in the center.

Where are Newt and his contract when we need them, when we need some real differences? With consensus-building, our nation is winding up with a virtual one-party system _ a condition that is anti-democratic.