So far, the 2008 American presidential campaign does not make sense. Since 2000, reporters have been warning about the growing polarization between ”œred” and ”œblue” America. After the 2004 election, a map darted around the Internet, showing North America divided into two countries: cosmopolitan ”œblue” America, constitut- ing the Northeast, the West Coast and Canada, renamed ”œthe United States of Canada”; and the benighted American Midwest and the Sunbelt, renamed ”œJesusland.”
And yet, in 2007 the leading candidates all seemed to be, in George W. Bush’s now infamous phrase, uniters, not dividers. On the Democratic side, the leading candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton, ran a campaign that was so cautious and centrist she refused to apologize for her vote authorizing the Iraq war even as she sought to lead America’s antiwar party. Her closest rival, Senator Barack Obama, preached about America as a ”œpurple” nation, combining the red and the blue, while making history as the first African-American candidate in a country now so accepting that people objected not to the fact that he was black but to the fact that he was green ”” too inexperienced. Among the Republicans, the candidate leading in the polls, Rudy Giu- liani, was a pro-life, thrice-married, gay-friendly former mayor of the capital of ”œblue” America, New York, seeking to lead America’s ”œred” party. His two main rivals were Mitt Romney, a flip-flopping Mormon former governor of the state often called ”œthe People’s Republic of Massachusetts,” and Senator John McCain, who built a reputation as a straight-talking, cen- trist iconoclast. Could it be that the United States is finding a new centre? Might moderation be George W. Bush’s unin- tended parting gift to his country?
The contentious presidency of George W. Bush followed Bill Clinton’s roiling tenure, which resulted in the first pres- idential impeachment in nearly a century and a half. Fears spread that America was divided and dysfunctional. Left and right frequently accentuated the differences, feeding the conflict. A great inversion had occurred. Whereas once popular culture and political culture were centripetal, draw- ing Americans toward a common standard, toward com- mon experiences, both became centrifugal, sending Americans careening off in different directions. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ”œbig three” networks ”” CBS, NBC and ABC ”” broadcast similar news shows, which most viewers con- sidered ”œobjective,” if somewhat super- ficial, slanted and sensational. In the Fox News era, competing partisans relied on contrasting news sources. Partisan blogs, talk radio shows, think tanks, and magazines intensified the polarization, perpetuating the impres- sion that America had experienced a defining red-blue split ”” although the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, referring to the Civil War, cracked: ”œUntil you’ve got more than 600,000 American bodies stacked up like cordwood, spare me the ”˜more divided than ever before’ talk.”
Bush’s presidency fed fears of an ever- widening chasm. America’s Crossfire culture became increasingly shrill. Conservatives and liberals whipped their followers into an Internet-fed frenzy, libelling opponents and lionizing their own in the unfiltered blogosphere’s vir- tual echo chamber. Al Franken became a Democratic icon, with hatchet jobs packaged in book form such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. He and others declared Bush the worst president ever, a liar, a boob, a fanatic, a warmonger. Republicans proved equally harsh in demonizing Democrats with screeds such as that claiming ”œLiberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by the aptly named Michael Savage. Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza accused liberals of aiding Osama Bin Laden. Modern liberals loved com- plaining about being disenfranchised, shut out of the Fox News orbit, while conservatives complained about being silenced and shunned by the main- stream media, the universities, the establishment. Characteristically myopic, Al Franken lamented ”œthe loss of civility in public discourse,” without taking responsibility for contributing to the problem.
The blogosphere increased the tension. Bloggers hoped to revolution- ize politics, undermining the media- party monopoly, mounting insurgent candidacies and, as one progressive study by the New Politics Institute dreamed, building ”œcommunities of activists and generat[ing] new political activity online.” Even as new business and cultural models emerged on the more collaborative Web 2.0 of Wikipedia, YouTube and MySpace, the political Blogosphere failed to deliver.
The blogs were the Internet era’s shrill speakers’ corners. Blogs prized short, punchy, flamboyant interac- tions, and the cheekier, meaner, or loopier the posts, the better. Over 25 million Americans read blogs daily. Blogs became incubators of pungent political commentary, reinforcing the red-blue paradigm. Internet spats spilled over into the mainstream media, generating ”œbuzz” and fre- quently upstaging traditional journal- ists. If there was anything politically constructive in the blogosphere, jour- nalists ignored it.
The new and old media’s polariz- ing partisanship further alienated America’s vast army of disengaged citi- zens. America’s postmodern ”œwhatev- er” culture was steeped in cynicism and addicted to irony. In the 1990s, Seinfeld became popular by creating characters proud of their attachment to nothing, mocking idealists and activists as earnest fools. Jon Stewart applied Seinfeld’s delight in life’s daily absurdities to politics. Stewart and his fellow merry prankster Stephen Colbert, born in 1964, joined the baby boomers Jay Leno and David Letterman as the leading court jesters in America’s emerging republic of ridicule. The 1980s concerns about ”œinfotainment” blurring news and entertainment now seemed quaint, as the news was delivered wrapped in a punchline. Surveys estimated the aver- age age of The Daily Show viewers at 33, almost half the age of nightly news show viewers. Young peo- ple, especially, were mock- ing current events before comprehending them. Given a false choice between shouting and laughing, why not retreat into a world of individual prerogative and indul- gent sensation?
Jon Stewart called himself passion- ate and idealistic, not cynical. Stewart believed in an American centre. When Baghdad fell in 2003, Stewart said, ”œIf you are incapable of feeling at least a tiny amount of joy at watching ordi- nary Iraqis celebrate this, you are lost to the ideological left.” But ”œif you are incapable of feeling badly that we even had to use force in the first place, you are ideologically lost to the right.”
While insisting ”œthis show is not a megaphone,” Stewart took pride in his bipartisan posture. Stewart said his comedy came ”œfrom feeling displaced from society because you’re in the center. We’re the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation.”
Despite the venom, some political scientists described a working American consensus on abortion, gay rights and other hot issues, in addition to Americans’ common commitments to capitalism, democracy, equality and consumerism. As the 2006 midterm elections loomed, Democrats wisely shelved their ideological conflicts.
Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, a Bill Clinton protégé, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York sought electable candidates. Most Senate winners were moderate, ”œblue dog” Democrats tacking right. Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey was pro-life and anti-gun-control. Virginia’s James Webb had been Ronald Reagan’s undersecretary of the navy. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill defined ”œbeing a Democrat” as ”œbeing moderate and truthful and strong.” Calling herself a ”œHarry Truman Democrat,” McCaskill wanted leaders ”œstrong enough to take on foreign enemies when they needed to, but…strong enough to know when not to fight.”
The star of the 2006 Democratic campaign, Barack Obama, embod- ied this centrist spirit. Obama’s national debut in 2004 electrified the Democratic Convention with a charis- matic keynote speech urging unity. Rejecting ”œthe spin masters, the nega- tive ad peddlers who embrace the pol- itics of ”˜anything goes,’” Obama mocked ”œthe pundits” who ”œlike to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States.” He declared:
We worship an ”œawesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledg- ing allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Two years later, Obama cleverly timed a book tour to coincide with the midterm campaign. This gangly, youth- ful looking 45-year-old charmed America. Oprah Winfrey, the high priest- ess of American popular culture, begged him to run for president. Larry King called Obama ”œthe man with more buzz than anyone in politics right now.” His book, The Audacity of Hope, identified the ”œcommon values and common ideals that we all believe in as Americans, whether we’re Republican or Democrat or Independents.” Obama blamed the unproductive polarization on ”œBaby Boomer politics.” Obama’s new genera- tion of leaders promised to heal, build- ing a more idealistic and gentler America with these common building blocks.
Joe Klein, the columnist of Time magazine, said the freshman senator’s ”œrelentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views” bordered on becoming ”œan obsessive-compulsive tic.” Klein counted ”œno fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand- edness.” This critique overlooked Americans’ excitement at seeing a politician who tried to reconcile with opponents rather than renouncing them. Americans wanted leaders till- ing common ground rather than sow- ing seeds of division.
To a nation still reeling from the shock of September 11, trauma- tized by the Iraq war, seeking solutions to the Islamist threat, worried about the economy, unnerved by a coarsen- ing culture, craving community in an increasingly polychromatic, multicul- tural nation and frustrated with many politicians’ shortsightedness, the Stewart-Obama message resonated. Americans wanted unity. They yearned for some calm and clarity.
On Election Day in 2006, many voted against Republicans to punish Bush for his partisanship. The Democrats regained the House and the Senate. ”œThe Vital Center Prevails,” rejoiced a post-election press release from the Democratic Leadership Council. ”œAmerica is a pragmatic nation, not a radical one,” Newsweek’s Anna Quindlen lectured President Bush as she branded the election a blow against ”œoverreaching” and for ”œmoderation.”
Bush’s perceived rigidity and fail- ure guaranteed that the 2008 cam- paign would trigger a mad dash to find or reconstitute the centre. A quarter of a century into the ”œReagan revolu- tion,” nearly four decades after the heyday of the sixties movement, the country has been ”œReaganized.” A con- sensus is re-emerging, bringing back traditional values with a makeover. As the baby boomers age, their rediscov- ery during the 1990s of enduring ideals and ethics has become ever more relevant, all leavened with a most welcome tolerance. The sixties kids relearned some of the lessons their elders accepted automatically, about the importance of families, the need for a moral centre, the desirabili- ty of balancing rights with responsibil- ities. Filtered through what the political scientist Alan Wolfe calls modern Americans’ ”œeleventh com- mandment” ”” thou shalt not judge thy neighbour ”” many liberals and conservatives are realizing they can find common ground.
Thus, amid the media circus, the political firefight and the cultural toxicity, calls for centrism grew louder, especially after the 2006 campaign. As the 2008 presidential contest loomed, the middle increasingly appeared the place to be. ”œI grew up in a middle- class family in the middle of America,” Senator Hillary Clinton said when she launched her presidential exploratory committee in January 2007, suggesting she was born to be bal- anced. Just two weeks earli- er, launching his second term, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said voters were ”œhungry for a new kind of politics, a politics that looks beyond the old labels, the old ways, the old arguments.” The Governor wanted ”œto move past partisanship, past bipartisanship to postpartisanship,” which he defined as ”œRepublicans and Democrats actively giving birth to new ideas together.”
Both Senator Clinton and Governor Schwarzenegger were process-oriented centrists. Like President Clinton, they triangulated, balancing off liberal and conservative ideologues. Some centrists emphasized particular building blocks. The New Republic‘s Peter Beinart began with the Islamist terrorist challenge. Beinart wanted to galvanize Americans with a multilateral antiterror strategy, echo- ing liberals’ ”œgood fight” for freedom during the Cold War. David Callahan said centrist Democrats advocated reconstituting a ”œmoral centre.” Liberals and conservatives would unite against American culture’s selfishness, materialism, and excessive sensuality. ”œIn an era of extreme self-interest, the left focuses on collective responsibility as our path to salvation, while the right dwells on personal responsibili- ty,” Callahan wrote. ”œMost ordinary Americans know we need to have both to advance the common good.”
Like Callahan, yet unlike many other liberals, Barack Obama acknowl- edged ”œthe power of culture to deter- mine both individual success and social cohesion.” Unlike many conser- vatives, Obama also believed ”œour gov- ernment can play a role in shaping that culture for the better.” This ten- sion and his calls for a constructive, respectful dialogue defined the Illinois senator as a centrist, despite an over- whelmingly liberal voting record.
The Democratic Netroot activists were particularly appalled by both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s perpetual political calculations. When Hillary Clinton unveiled her cautious, main- stream, middle-class agenda, perhaps the Democrats’ most influential blog- ger, Markos Moulitsas ZuÌniga of the Daily Kos declared her domestic plan ”œdead on arrival.” Using the colourful language so characteristic of his medi- um, Zuniga exclaimed: ”œIt’s truly dis- appointing that this is the crap Hillary has signed on to.” Zuniga labelled it ”œmore of the failed corporatist bullshit that has cost our party so dearly the last decade and a half.” Still, again and again, Hillary Clinton made it clear that, as her campaign buttons pro- claimed, she was ”œin it to win it.” Purity was secondary.
Historically, Democrats demon- strated a flair for doctrinal division, sometimes constructively, often self- destructively. In the Bush years Republicans squabbled about foreign policy, immigration, separation of church and state, but these clashes rarely generated broad strategic visions. Advocating ”œcentrism” or alternative visions risked appearing disloyal to the administration’s con- servative agenda. Ultimately, George W. Bush represented both poles in the Republican debate over centrism. His 2000 campaign championed a more moderate, compassionate conser- vatism. Bush souped up his father’s ”œkinder, gentler” approach with more vision and more government involve- ment in a call for a ”œcompassionate conservatism.” By 2006, the Bush presidency represented a more rigid conservatism than Ronald Reagan’s. Filling the vacuum, as party grum- bling mounted about Karl Rove’s play to the base, David Brooks articulated a post-Bush conservative centrism. The New York Times columnist stressed cul- ture’s role in shaping individuals, the need for strong ethics, the imperative to defeat Islamist terrorism and his own version of ”œcommon good” Americanism.
Politics is the art of compromise. Constructive democratic politics needs to be as broad and as welcoming as possible to encourage social peace and political legitimacy. Conviction politi- cians risk being imprisoned by ideolo- gy, handcuffed to the world they wish to see rather than adjusting to the world as it is. Particularly in 2006, George W. Bush’s administration seemed to have foundered on the shoals of his rigidity.
In recent decades, primary battles have tended to bring out the partisan- ship in candidates, while the general election fosters broader, centre-seek- ing statesmanship. Before any caucus- es meet, before any votes are cast, it is premature to make any definitive pro- nouncements about what has occurred so far. But it is never too early to hope. This is a perilous age, menaced by Islamist terrorists who have declared war on the West ”” whether we like to notice it or not ”” challenged by an overheated economy that often underproduces for the poor. America’s leaders must try building bridges, forging consensus, playing to the centre, not to the base. At the same time, citizens, especially today, need a renewed appreciation of what binds them as Americans, while notic- ing the many positive things going on in the country, despite the challenges.