Monday, January 21, 2008

The appeal of the outliers

Some interesting comments have been appearing across the Internet, the gist of which is refers to the curious weakness of the American political center. Caroline Glick, writing at Townhall says, "Ten years after Bill Clinton's impeachment; seven years after President George W. Bush's contested victory in 2000; and five years into the Iraq campaign, the cleavages both between the two major parties and within them have given purchase to candidates and policies that would have previously never made it out of the starting gate. ... The open race, unprecedented in recent history, is a consequence of the fragmentation of America's political center."

What surprises some pundits is the sheer power of candidates who only some years ago would have been judged to inhabit the fringes. An academic conference scheduled for the middle of this year will attempt to analyze the power of extremist positions in the current political debate.



So, if the largest plurality of citizens in the United States claims to be moderate or middle-of-the-road or centrist, should not moderates dominate the political discourse? The short answer is “apparently not.” For if centrist forces were dominant in American politics today, we would have a very different political environment than the one we face as the 2008 presidential election approaches.

The goal of this conference is to address the seemingly anomalous situation within which public policymaking is undertaken in the United States, wherein the dominant political actors in the federal policymaking process are representatives of the more extreme elements of both of the major political parties, while the largest plurality of citizens adheres to neither of the underlying political ideologies of those parties and, in particular, of their leaders.

Roger Simon, who once observed that the majority of Americans liked to think of themselves as nonpartisan, wondered about the persistent staying power of Ron Paul. "I find it quite scary that Ron Paul continues to do relatively well at the polls, despite the numerous revelations about him and his cohorts. Paul is quite clearly a liar, but this continues to be ignored for the most part by the mainstream media - who give Paul a pass and have not really confronted him at any of the debates - and clearly by many of his adherents, who either choose to ignore or not just not hear the allegations against him."

The current Presidential race does have sober candidates who are known quantities. As Tigerhawk says, "What I find most important is that the Republicans have offered up 3 genuine 'heavyweights.' You can like or dislike them, agree or disagree, but each of McCain, Giuliani and Romney are serious, capable people in their respective histories and careers. They all have records of significant accomplishment. Their resumes are not phony or manufactured. I can envision any of them as President of the United States -- something I cannot say of any of the balance of the candidates from either party."

But what's interesting is how difficult it has been for these heavyweights to dominate the field. They should have left the rest behind by now, yet haven't. And there's a good chance that none of the heavyweights will make it to the White House at all. As Glick put it, "Barack Obama has a good chance of securing his party's nomination for president and winning the general election. And this is disturbing because like Paul, he enjoys the support of hateful bigots. And like Paul and Huckabee, he holds foreign policy positions which are based on the notion that the global jihad is not a serious threat." The center may be where all the voters are, but there's a significant chance that in some sense, it cannot hold. What could explain it?

The maintenance of "good enough" is a thankless task. Anyone with a steady but repetitive job knows how the urge to make a change grows in proportion to one's boredom. And there's not even Osama to enliven the party. One reason why the "global jihad" is not considered a serious issue by many voters is that there have been no significant attacks on America in nearly seven years. But on the other hand there have bee no great breakthroughs either. If great catastrophes, reverals etc have been absent, missing too has been the sense of exhilarating possibility. Washington is business as usual; illegal immigration is business as usual. Complacency is when people think nothing can go wrong; frustration occurs when people believe nothing can happen. Gusts from the extremes are greatest when the center is becalmed.

15 Comments:

Blogger rodomontade said...

Some thoughts:

1. Ron Paul is a protest candidate, a symbol of discontent. It doesn't really matter if he's a liar because no one thinks he'll be President. People vote for Ron Paul mostly because they disdain the other choices.

2. The Democrats will eventually pay a price for the lightweight foreign policy positions of their candidates. Just as John Kerry convinced them he'd be strong with his "war hero" record and opposition to the war, Democrats (and the MSM) have convinced themselves that Clinton or Obama would be strong with their opposition to the war. Eventually, they will have to explain their views -- not just the retrospective ones about George W. Bush's mistakes but the prospective ones -- and when that happens, they'll be exposed as lightweights.

Americans do generally wish we hadn't started the war. However, they'd like to make the best out of where we are, if for no other reason than to honor our dead. The Democrat refusal to acknowledge progress and the insistence on defeat is not tenable. They'll end up in the same box as John Kerry having to endorse the same policies as George W. with merely the promise to execute them "better." This will be exposed as the same hope that the Euros, the UN, and the Arab world will somehow bail us out if we're nice to them, and the American people will see through that when they have to confront the choice.

1/21/2008 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

Voters in Western democracies use 'extremist' candidates to try to force issues onto the agenda which their political and social elites resist addressing. That doesn't mean they want to see them elected.

Clear examples have included the Communist and Le Pen parties in France, and the BNP in the UK.

I used to live in a town in France which had voted Communist since the 1930's. If you asked voters there is they took Marxism seriously or wanted to live under a Communist government they would laugh at you. The reason they voted as they did was because the Communist candidate was the only one they felt they could rely on, election after election, to 'give a middle finger to' (substitute any one of a number of equivalent French expressions) whoever was in power, on various issues they cared about.

Le Pen's trajectory provided a great illustration of this phenomenon the last time Chirac was elected President of France. In the first round Le Pen came in second, as voters tried to force immigration and the level of street crime onto the agenda. Few of them wanted to see Le Pen become President. Chirac unfortunately understood how to play this game of 'chicken' between the political elite and the populist electorate. Chirac called their bluff, won a huge victory in the Second Round and carried on exactly as he had during his first term.

In this sense McCain, determined not to tighten up immigration in any effective way, and supporting campaign finance regulations which entrench incumbents, is a very European candidate (as are, for very much the same reasons, both Clinton and Obama).

1/21/2008 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger John Lynch said...

I don't see it. Both Democrats are exactly the same as liberal Democrats of the past. On the Republican side, you've got people that resemble Reagan and Bush (both of them).

Ron Paul? How about Pat Buchanon or Pat Robertson? Both did well in the primaries. Hell, Jesse Jackson WON primaries in 1984.

So, business as usual. When the country will elect the likes of Paul or Al Sharpton, then we have a problem. We're not there.

There's nothing new here.

1/21/2008 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The situation in the 50's and early 60's in which the two sides were close together in many ways was not the norm. When he ran for president, J. F. Kennedy told some close friends that if he were not running himself he would be voting for Nixon. A decade later the Democrats considered Nixon to be evil incarnate because he was fighting a war they had started on and done badly.

So the Democrats have run to the far Left and now decry the fact that there is no center. While many Republicans are to the Left of where most Democrats used to be. JFK would be a real right winger today and his son even said that he he ran for office it probably would have to be as a Republican.

Anyway, as Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying, no one ever wrote a book entitled "Great Moderates"

1/21/2008 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

Perhaps the underlying issue is the current unrepresentativeness of our "representative democracy".

Who wants to run for election? Someone who believes that government is the answer, that's who. There have been a few candidates over the years who were not at heart government men, but only a few.

The only way out may be to reform the nature of representative democracy. Choose a Congress the same way we choose a jury -- by random selection from the pool of citizens. The President could still be elected, but would have to face a truly representative Congress when trying to enact measures.

1/21/2008 05:30:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Nomenklatura is exactly right. It's a populist issue. Versus the elites.

What is striking is that so few candidates can summon the populist vote. Paul is a fringe candidate who polls under 10% -- not surprising since his fans are basically men 18-26 which make up around 7% of the population. Huckabee can pull only a quarter of the Evangelical vote and less than 4% of everyone else. Romney in Michigan and Nevada pulled closest to the populist vote. Clinton's coalition of Hispanics and women easily beat Obama's Black plus elitist-status obsessed whites.

Obama has no chance of getting the nomination much less the general election.

What is striking is how rapidly after 1968 the Democratic Party abandoned the populist vote. People forget that before his melt-down Ross Perot LED all candidates because he tapped populist fears of loss of sovereignty and income at the start of globalization.

Obama is popular among the media. But then so is Paris Hilton, Britney, and movies like "Valley of Elah" or "Lions for Lambs." Media sensation is not equal to actual, real popularity. If it was, Kevin Federline would be starring in big budget movies.

Likely, whatever candidate can achieve a populist majority (FDR, Ike, Nixon, Reagan) will have considerable power to address populist issues. Most of which IMHO relate to globalization. Which would include Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Jihad, AQ, trade, the economy, and so on.

1/21/2008 06:21:00 PM  
Blogger Derek Kite said...

There is a common thread that is driving this dynamic.

Fear.

Different fears, but all as real and threatening. Fear of Islamic terrorism. Fear of economic collapse. Fear of overwhelming competitive advantage from China. Fear that the good times, economically, securitywise are only a biding of time.

Everyone everywhere wants to knock the US off the top of the pile.

The american's are fearful because they aren't sure they can prevail. They have been convinced that they can't in the messy insurgency in Iraq. They are convinced that they can't compete.

Fear. Either hide (Paul), go back under a comfortable blanket (Hillary), ignore everything and go for self-congratulation (Obama), look for the steady hand (Guiliani/McCain), find someone who knows how to run things (Romney), let's sue the bastards (Edwards).

Derek

1/21/2008 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Annoymouse said...

The squeaky wheel gets the oil or all the attention as it may be. There are shrieking Leftists and bellowing Right Wingers but no blustering middle of the roaders proselytizing the need for moderation. The center right and center left have made up there minds which way they lean. The pols don’t think they can sway them so they’re of no consequence to them. They are interested in the outliers or the special interest groups because they are the great un-decided in their minds who souls they can harvest.

Interestingly Newt Gingrich is associated with ‘American Solutions’ that has come up with issues that 90% of all Americans can agree on. Other issues showed that a vast majority of Americans could agree on numerous key issues. But nothing will ever come of it, the purpose of modern government is to gain and to maintain power. The only way to do this is to find issues that divide one another. Divide and conquer. Our government does not want solutions it wants subjects and the way to get them is to appeal to the nut jobs and to keep the divisions wide and deep.

1/21/2008 07:10:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

There is a common thread that is driving this dynamic. Fear.

Fear normally creates an adrenalin rush. At the very minimum it gets your gizzards churning. And at times like that there's a tremendous urge to do do something. Run, shoot, shout. Anything but but do nothing.

So in this seeming calm before the storm, as everyone waits for what the stock markets around the world will do, it's hard to sit in the foxhole and hunker down. The tension is unbearable.

In this crisis some will bolt. Others will reposition. Still more will sit tight. And some will fare better than others. It will be interesting to see who is left standing in the morning.

1/21/2008 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

RWE said...

When he ran for president, J. F. Kennedy told some close friends that if he were not running himself he would be voting for Nixon. A decade later the Democrats considered Nixon to be evil incarnate because he was fighting a war they had started on and done badly.
////////////////
No. Nixon was viscerally hated because of his role in the HUAC hearings of the McCarthy era in the early 1950's. That visceral unforgotten and unforgiven hatred was much like the swift boat veterans feelings for John Kerry.

As for JFK, his father was one of the few democrats around who agreed with Joe McCarthy.

As it turned out McCarthy was right.

No matter the poison that the communists injected into the USA from the McCarthy era still works it way through the body politic.

1/21/2008 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Pangloss said...

Since the 1968 Democratic Convention the Democratic party has transformed itself from a patriotic party of weird and populist alliances into an increasingly socialist and anti-American party. McGovern and his gang led it over the cliff and into the deep blue sea. The Republican party was reshaped into a fiercely anti-Communist party by Ronald Reagan, and he happened to institute a lot of other innovative policies that were tested and found to actually work. This results testing was the foundation of the political platform of modern American conservatism.

Why should Republicans abandon programs that actually work, as proved by their results? These programs are not actually outlier programs, except in the minds of the media who are diehard cheerleaders for the Democrat party and every misbegotten, harebrained, drug-addled, leftist idea that ever popped up like a curl of smoke rising from the bowl of a bong full of Mexican Red Sinsemilla.

1/21/2008 08:35:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


The gyre of American politics is a feature of the two party system, something the Founders warned against. The problem is, if you split the elements of a normal curve into two parts, it has a centripetal effect on the parts. The medians spread father apart as adherents try to find balance within each party, and they spread father apart, still, in order to accommodate the passion of the extremes, and they spread father apart again in order to avoid any possible resemblance to each other. Witness the condemnation of RINOs and DINOs. If balance of the parties vis a vis each other is maintained -- by no means a given -- then the Center retains the power to enforce compromise and sanity. The people who hold the that power, however, are always left with the feeling of choosing the lesser of two evils. People like McCain and, yes, Hillary are condemned for not attacking the "enemy" with sufficient ferocity.

1/21/2008 09:26:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

W,

As the business world wakes up:

India's Sensex tumbles 11.5% in early minutes, trade halted

Asian stocks extends losses into a second day

Odds are, U.S. is in a recession

Stock market crash + recession in election year = opposition party regains white house

1/21/2008 09:52:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Utopia -- Never underestimate the ability of Democrats to screw things up.

1/22/2008 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

"Never underestimate the ability of Democrats to screw things up."

Hear, hear. in 2004 the war had already begun to go south in a serious way. Bush's popularity was seriously slipping. All they had to do was nominate Lieberman and I wouldn't have given Bush a chance to stay prez. So what do they do? Put up a French-looking storyteller who has demonstrably embellished his record (Christmas in Cambodia, anyone?)

Now they've settled on putting up either a woman who 45% of the voting public instinctively hates and/or distrusts, or else a poseur MLK-wannabe who has never run a McDonalds, much less a country. Both are senators and niether has any legislative accomplishments to speak of.

Among the repubs there are several strong options with the experience to run things, or at least recognizable legislative victories. So as I see it, the race is handicapped toward the Rs right out the gate.

Of course, the "party of smaller government" seems hooked on growing the government or else spending time on things like flag burning amendments, gay marriage bans and school prayer, so it'll probably tack back the other way before the fat lady sings and whoever wins will probably do so in yet another squeaker.

Sigh.

1/22/2008 10:12:00 AM  

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