Friday, May 19, 2006

Why the Center Cannot Hold . . . Because There Is No Center

In light of the "attacks" on Holy Joe Lieberman for his "centrism" by our media guardians, the people who put "loco" in in loco parentis, I just want to reiterate the point I made in the discussions of anchors and their roles in political deliberation. Anchors build the range of possible ideas and arguments, and what a nation can do will only exist within the poles set by those anchors. Depending on their width, the center will vary its position. That is, if one anchor is 50 and the other 100, the "center" is 65-85. If, however, new anchors are developed and set, say at 1, the center shifts to 25-75. In other words, there is nothing clearly distinguishable, set in concrete, stable over time, as the "center."

The Repubs got this long ago. After decades of the Robert Michels and even Richard Nixons playing the "move to the center" politically game that left the Dems in control of Congress year after year, that is, setting their anchors around 80-85, Reagan, then Gingrich and crew blew it all to Hell, going out to 90-95, leaving just enough to say they weren't "extremists." The Dems had the choice, stay true to their principles built up over decades since FDR in the face of temporary external winds that cost them a couple of elections, or think the way to be competitive was to start moving away from their traditional anchor end, from anchors of 10-15 to the 20s, 30s, 40s we see today, exemplified perfectly by an unctuous, clueless, harmful egotist like Joe Lieberman. Clearly, we know the choice, so that a Sandra Day O'Connor, who was near the Repub anchor pole in the 1970s leaves the Supreme Court seen as a "centrist." John "I Forgot Everything I Learned in Kindergarten" McCain can only be a hero to "leftists" if those "leftists" now occupy the old 50-60 territory on the spectrum.

What I'm saying is that the spectrum of values and ideas that have underlain our politics is not a set thing with a set "center." That spectrum has been flexible and fluid, open historically (although maybe not much longer) to additions and subtractions that can pull either anchor pole inward or outward as external and internal events create appropriate contexts. This is because people, including those in the "center," don't have a small operating core of positions; they respond to times and stories that will draw them one way or the other. As the Dems lost that understanding, their quest to "move to the center" has meant continual movement toward the Repubs' anchor, with the "center" moving correspondingly. The logical conclusion to this is that that strategy does, in fact, lead to a two-party system with a spectrum of 88-98, not 10-90. The former is a narrow, limited spectrum of ideas and possibilities that will not adapt much, if at all, to those pesky changes required by reality for continued success. The latter is a broad, creative spectrum that produces the ideas and possibilities to meet the challenges of the complex and uncertain world we face.

Is it riskier electorally to work at re-expanding the American spectrum to bring about this brighter future? Of course. New ideas and possibilities always take time to accept, and the tried and true will win more in the short term. But, as history and reality expose the weaknesses and poisons of the narrower spectrum, they will also come back to show the wisdom and character of the broader potentials and solutions offered in the wider spectrum. Al Gore is emerging again precisely because he staked out a broader position on global warming years before it was "correct" to do so. History and reality are now coming back to him, as they came back to a Lincoln who had been politically retired. Those who kept chasing the unstable, non-concrete, unreal "center" may have had an occasional win because of their opponents' failures, but they, by definition, have nothing stable, concrete, and real to build upon. When posture does finally have to give way to performance, the sand under their feet leaves them very shaky, as Lieberman is finding and, God willing, Hillary will, too.

The lesson is clear for Dems. Stand for the American Legacy of personal freedom and opportunity and responsible and democratic government. Those who mouth the platitudes to these values but play on fear and greed can win in the short term, but reality will slap them down, as it slapped down their fellow Brezhnevists in another major country not so long ago. Those who have chased the "center" that kept moving further away will be seen for what they are. Don't chase the "center." Pull it back to where it has historically been when this country has been great. Ensure its legacy and you'll ensure your own.