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

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

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Trump supporters celebrate the close of the polls as they watch election results at a rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina

“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

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Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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4 Comments

  1. FireBaron February 22, 2016

    On the Republican side, the downhill slide started in 1964 when Barry Goldwater’s supporters effectively locked out the Northeastern Liberal Wing (Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, etc.) from the platform committee. It was further enhanced after Nixon’s 1968 Presidential victory, when the party embraced those Southern Democrats who still favored the segregationist policies espoused by Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, etc. It is interesting to note that the most noted segregationist among them, George Wallace, remained true to the Democratic Party and his personal philosophy also evolved from segregationist to one who was willing to accept the growing strength of black voters, even seeking their support in his further political pursuits.

    This same breakaway also saw the Conservative Wing of the Democratic Party (again, primarily the South and Southwest) break away and join the Republicans. This effectively left the Liberal Wing of the Democrats without the restraint of the Conservative wing to temper their ambitions.

    Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory in 1980 was the start of the Democrats allowing themselves to be defined by the Republicans. Reagan rarely mentioned the Democratic Party by name, but would always refer to them as “Liberals” said in such a way with such a sneer that it became an insult. Of course, it didn’t help that Democrats had Walt Mondale and Paul Dukakis as their standard bearers in 84 and 88.
    It wasn’t until Bill Clinton and his centrist version of the Democratic party came in 92 that the Democrats stopped careening to the left, and returned to a middle-of-the-road track. Unfortunately, much of what he hoped to accomplish was derailed by the Conservative Rebellion of 94, and 6 years of subsequent “go nowhere” investigations, ultimately leading to the embarrassing Impeachment proceedings and the Trial in the Senate.
    Since then, both parties have wandered further to the extremes of their spectra, with Republicans blaming every loss on having candidates who were insufficiently conservative, and winners realizing the “conservative agenda” they ran on will be more harmful to the very people who elected them than leaving the existing policies in place! So they then use rhetoric to blame their inability to pass the “conservative agenda” on the faceless name of “Liberals”, and continue to be reelected despite their total ineffectiveness.
    Now, the Republican agenda appears to be “Let nothing get approved” for the next 9 months, hoping to capture the White House. Given that their candidate will likely be one of three people (a populist demagogue without a clue how government works, a Senator hated by approximately 96% of the rest of the Senate, or a Senator who looks good but is an “empty suit”) any of those could result in a top-down loss for the GOP resulting in the Democratic party not only winning the Presidency, but also winning back the House and Senate, and the later with a filibuster-proof majority! Also, the winner will likely have two or three Supreme Court appointments to make.

    Reply
    1. CrankyToo February 22, 2016

      From your lips to God’s ear, my friend. What a wonderful ending that would be to the 2016 campaign season.

  2. Paul Bass February 22, 2016

    HRC will end up winning the nomination, and will own the middle by November. One would hope more rational voters will exceed the “angry mob”.

    Reply
  3. LasloPratt February 22, 2016

    Define “center.”

    Reply

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