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Dumb Bigots Vs. Typical Liberals: The High Cost Of Political Tribalism

To many people, politics is essentially tribal, an Us vs. Them struggle between cartoon enemies. Scarce a day passes that my inbox doesn’t contain a message like this:

“I must be one of those deplorables that they talk about. By reading your column I figure you are wealthy, old money, college educated, but cannot turn a screwdriver, typical liberal, pro LGBT, gun-fearing, pro-abortion, everything that someone told you should be, so not to offend…If this country doesn’t get back to, God-fearing, gun-toting, conservatives, we’re going to be fighting are wars with pink camoed soldiers prancing around the battle field passing out flowers. Sorry if I offended you, just kidding fag.”

That’s comparatively civil; there are frequent threats. But never once to my face. So I treat such messages as unwitting guides to their authors’ fears. People who obsess about strangers’ sexual practices usually have something to hide.

But it’s not just right-wingers. Check out reader comments to a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times expressing empathy for loyal Trump voters in Oklahoma who stand to lose their health insurance, senior centers, job-training programs, etc. should the president’s draconian budget proposal be enacted. (Fat chance, but hold that thought.)

“Some of the loyalty,” Kristof wrote “seemed to be grounded in resentment at Democrats for mocking Trump voters as dumb bigots.” Offended readers denounced what one called “Kristof’s continuing delusional campaign that Trump voters need to be understood.”

Another thought “dumb bigots” an understatement: “Our country is being held hostage by resentful coal miners who are never going to get their black lung disease-causing jobs back. It’s being held hostage by undereducated, evidently opioid-addicted, underemployed white men across the Rust Belt…[and] by mean-spirited Religious Right fanatics who want to impose Christian Sharia law on the rest of us.”

Elsewhere, pundit Frank Rich contributed an essay to New York Magazine titled “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” The flamboyantly embittered scribe thinks it “a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.”

Precisely which Democrats empathize with Klansmen isn’t clear, but Rich’s personal animus couldn’t be clearer. “If we are free to loathe Trump,” he concludes “we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.”

Or, as Joseph Conrad wrote in a different context “Exterminate all the brutes.”

My problem with this tribal loathing is twofold: first, bedrock Americanism as explained to me by my working-stiff New Jersey father. “You’re no better than anybody else,” the old man would growl, “and NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.” If he stressed the last bit in reaction to the “Irish need not apply” signs of his youth, he also meant the first part. Me too.

Second, my experience of living most of my adult life in Arkansas, an historically “blue” state recently turned deepest “red” without changing its essential character very much at all. How Bill Clinton happened was that after 1968, when the state narrowly gave George Wallace (a cornpone Trump) its electoral votes, Democratic moderate Dale Bumpers saw that the hardcore segregationist vote was about one third. The old order was on life-support.

Stressing economic progress and social tolerance, Bumpers laid the political foundation for several Democratic governors to come: David Pryor, Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Even Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee—installed by legalistic coup during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s farcical “Whitewater” investigation—governed as a moderate.

Progress was palpable. When Bumpers took office in 1970, per capita income in Arkansas was 43% of the national average; today it’s 82% and rising. If it’s far from paradise, local patriotism here runs very strong. (Go Hogs!) It’s tempting to observe that Arkansans finally got rich enough to turn Republican. The GOP ran the table in 2014, electing former Rep. Asa Hutchinson governor and taking control of the general assembly.

Did the election of a black president help seal the deal? No doubt, but only at the margins. Trump won 61 percent of the state’s presidential vote in 2016. But if the state legislature has recently devoted itself to largely symbolic absurdities involving guns and public bathrooms, neither has it fundamentally altered the state’s political culture. Gov. Hutchinson has resisted the Trump administration’s attack on Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion; even far-right Sen. Tom Cotton vigorously opposed the Trump-Ryan Obamacare repeal.

Very broadly then, the center appears to be holding. And while I yield to no man in my visceral contempt for Donald J. Trump, I’ll be very surprised if Congress enacts his anti-community budget cuts. Trashing cartoon liberals is one thing; shutting down Meals on Wheels quite another.

As for cartoon conservatives, Democrats should keep in mind that bringing even five percent of them back around would constitute a revolution.

New ‘Democracy Corps’ Poll: GOP Civil War Is An Opportunity For Democrats

A new poll from Democracy Corps, a Democratic non-profit political polling and consulting firm run by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, reveals that Donald Trump’s supposedly universal support among the Republican base might have quite a few holes in it, especially among more centrist voters.

The poll looked at likely Republican voters as they belonged to one of four groups: the Tea Party, observant Catholics, moderates, and Evangelicals.

Asked to describe their feelings towards various political figures by assigning them a number, likely Tea Party and Evangelical voters favored Donald Trump +40 and +16, respectively, while observant Catholics and moderates responded, on average, -26 and -25.

Only 45 percent of moderates and 65 percent of observant Catholics said they would vote for Donald Trump in a hypothetical general election match up against Hillary Clinton, compared to 81 percent of Evangelicals and 81 percent of Tea Partiers. 9 percent of moderates and 5 percent of observant Catholic respondents said they would vote for Hillary Clinton in such a scenario.

Moderate respondents were especially resistant, when asked, to the tone and character of the Trump campaign thus far. If the New York billionaire continues at his current pace, he will almost certainly be the Republican nominee.

“Moderates form 31 percent of the Republican Party base, and they are solidly pro-choice on abortion and hostile to pro-life groups. About one in five are poised to defect from the party,” stated a press release that accompanied the poll.

“The strongest attacks that we tested centered on [Trump’s] character and leadership qualities: that he is an ego-maniac at the expense of the country, that he is disrespectful towards women, and that he cannot be trusted to keep the country safe and handle our nuclear weapons.”

Photo: Donald Trump reacts to supporters as he arrives to a campaign event in Radford, Virginia February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Without A Center, How Does The Nation’s Business Get Done?

“Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.” — William Butler Yeats

And so this is the presidential campaign of 2016.

If it were a movie, it would be pornography. If it were a sporting event, it would be a cockfight. If it were music, it would be the sound of cats on a hot blackboard.

In other words, it has not been the most high-minded affair.

But beyond the fact that it has been ugly and dispiriting, the campaign has also come to feel … ominous, like a portent of some dystopian future. You wonder if maybe the superficial nastiness of it isn’t truly superficial at all, but rather, evidence of a grim new reality: that we are a nation of 323 million people in 50 states who not only are not united, but don’t particularly want to be.

It is hard to escape a sense that at some level, we have disengaged from one another and that as a result, our politics has shrunken to its extremes, like two boxers who retreat to neutral corners to yell across the ring.

Two men in particular embody this. The first, of course, is Donald Trump, who has channeled angry misanthropy into political power. The reality show impresario has pulled the Republican Party far to the right, using as his prod the inchoate, done-wrong, want-my-country-back rage of those for whom change is always, by definition, threat.

The second man is Bernie Sanders, who has channeled the angry populism of the political left into a movement that is no slouch for power itself. The Vermont senator has yanked the Democratic field — i.e., Hillary Clinton — far to the left, forcing her to compete for the affections of angry, tired-of-being-dumped-on 99 percenters who see democracy being stolen by Big Money and like it not at all.

Don’t misunderstand the point. Sanders has given voice to concerns too often ignored by Republicans and paid lip service to by Democrats. So the argument here is not that there is equivalence between the extremes of left and right. No, the argument — the observation, really — is that they are both, well … extremes. And that, apparently, that’s all our national politics has left.

It is instructive to watch Clinton and Sanders bicker about which is the more ideologically pure. Until recently, that kind of quarrel was restricted to Republicans jousting over who was most “conservative” — by which they meant draconian — on issues like immigration and abortion. Now, apparently, Democrats, too, want their candidates to pledge allegiance to philosophical dogma.

It raises a question: Whither the center? And if there is no center, how does the nation’s business get done? As ungovernable as the country has been under Barack Obama, a center-left pragmatist the Republicans made out to be the reincarnation of Che Guevara, it can only be worse under a leader whose ideological purity is zealously policed and for whom compromise is apostasy.

One struggles to even imagine what the fall campaign will be like. Usually, candidates argue over who has the best ideas for solving a given set of problems. But in neutral corners America, there is not even consensus on what the problems are. Will we have Trump campaigning on Mexicans and Muslims, while Sanders rails about money and malfeasance? Will we be asked only to decide which makes us most angry and afraid?

If so, whither hope?

And here, Democrats will want it noted that they were not the first to abandon the center. Let the record so state. The GOP eschewed all claim to that ground long ago and even purged itself of members who dared wander too close.

Still, the question of who is to blame for a politics of extremism is less compelling than the question of what that politics portends. Two boxers yelling at one another from neutral corners makes for great theater.

But the fighting is done in the center of the ring.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2016 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Photo: Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrate the close of the polls as they watch election results at a rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

When Moderates Fight Back

WASHINGTON — The missing component in the machinery of American politics has been moderate-to-liberal Republicanism, and the gears of government are grinding very loudly. You wonder if Kansas and Alaska have come up with a solution to this problem.

In Kansas, Democrat Chad Taylor shook up the Senate race by dropping out last week, giving an independent candidate, Greg Orman, a clean shot at the incumbent, Pat Roberts.

At least one poll showed Orman with a 10-point lead over the 78-year-old Roberts in a two-way race. Republicans are so afraid of Orman that Kansas’ Republican (and unabashedly ideological) secretary of state, Kris Kobach, used a technicality to keep Taylor’s name on the November ballot anyway. Taylor is challenging the decision.

In Alaska, Democrat Byron Mallott ended his candidacy for governor and chose instead to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket led by an independent candidate, Bill Walker. By combining forces, Walker and Mallott hope to oust Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

Because of the revolution in Republican politics spearheaded by the Tea Party, these should not be treated as isolated episodes. They are both signs that moderates, particularly moderate Republicans, are fighting back.

The safe journalistic trope is that that both of our major parties have become more “extreme.” This is simply not true. It’s the Republican Party that’s veered far off center. To deny the fact is to disrespect the hard work of conservatives in taking over the GOP.

By contrast, there are still plenty of moderates in the Democratic Party. They include Senators Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Begich in Alaska, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina. All of them are threatened in this fall’s elections by conservative or right-wing Republicans. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia is another moderate on the ballot this year, but so far, he seems safe.

On the other hand, outright liberals have been losing primaries in the Republican Party since the late 1960s, particularly in Senate races. In the House, the few remaining liberal Republicans (one thinks of Maryland’s Connie Morella and Iowa’s Jim Leach) were defeated because Democrats in their districts finally decided that electing even Republicans they liked only empowered the party’s increasingly conservative congressional leadership.

As for the Republican establishment, it may have overcome many Tea Party challenges this year, but it is increasingly captive of the right wing.

This summer, conservative writers Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru offered an insightful analysis of the Tea Party-establishment dynamic in an article in National Review appropriately titled “Establishment Tea.” Lowry and Ponnuru argued that the establishment candidates who triumphed did so largely on the Tea Party’s terms, though the authors put the matter somewhat more politely. “Candidates who make the case that they will fight for conservative ideas, and not just serve time,” they wrote, “can win Tea Party support.”

What’s happening in Kansas is particularly revealing of the backlash against the right from moderate Republicans. Although Roberts is not a Tea Party candidate — indeed, he defeated a Tea Party challenger in last month’s primary — the Senate race could be influenced by the state’s contest for governor, one of the most important in the country.

Incumbent Republican Sam Brownback has championed an unapologetic Tea Party, tax-cutting agenda, and has sought to purge moderate Republicans who opposed him from the state Legislature. Many GOP moderates have responded by endorsing Brownback’s opponent, Democrat Paul Davis. A Brownback defeat would be a major blow to the right.

“The moderates have said, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,'” said Dan Glickman, a moderate Democrat who represented the area around Wichita in Congress for 18 years. In an interview, Glickman argued that the rightward tilt is antithetical to the GOP’s history in Kansas, a state that sent both Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, in her day a leading GOP moderate, to the Senate.

“The Republican Party in Kansas was always a heartland, common sense, moderate or moderately conservative party,” Glickman said, adding that at times, it has had a strongly progressive contingent as well.

Orman has been almost maddeningly disciplined in not revealing which party he would caucus with if he defeated Roberts. With national Republican operatives pouring into the state to save the three-term incumbent’s floundering campaign, the battle will get a lot tougher.

But already, Republicans are learning that the cost of driving moderates away could get very high. What middle-of-the roaders could not accomplish inside the party, they may achieve by attacking from outside the gates.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Metal Chris via Flickr

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