Michael Barone / May 20, 2010

The Golden Age of Centrism Wasn’t So Golden

Laments about polarization are filling the air – or at least that part of the air in which friends and family members have political discussions. It has been widely noted that every Republican member of Congress has a voting record to the right of every Democrat and every Democrat is to the left of every Republican. There is no partisan overlap anymore.

This is bemoaned by celebrators of centrism, who look back to a golden age when there were lots of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.

The funny thing is, when you look back to that time in mid-century America, the decades on either side of 1950, high-minded thinkers didn’t like that partisan muddle at all.

Mid-century political scientists disliked the ideological incoherence of the two political parties. It would be better, they argued, to have one party clearly liberal and the other clearly conservative. Then voters would have a real choice and could be confident about the consequences of their votes.

Political scientists then as now were mostly Democrats, and they evidently hoped that the Democratic Party would emerge as the clearly liberal party and that it would continue to be as successful as it was in winning the five presidential elections in the 1930s and 1940s.

They were writing at a time when Americans were not polarized by the cultural issues that have raged in recent years. Abortion was a crime in every state. Homosexuality was not mentioned in polite company. Everybody partook of the same uncontroversial popular culture in movies and on radio and television.

But there was one great polarization in mid-century America, and it contributed significantly to the partisan muddle: the divide between North and South. Southern states had laws imposing racial segregation, and many didn’t allow blacks to vote. The North had no such laws and, except for wartime and postwar migration to major cities and factory towns, had few blacks.

Southern whites voted solidly Democratic, but their officeholders were conservative on issues like civil rights and federal aid programs. That’s why there were so many conservative Democrats in Congress. More Republicans than Democrats voted for civil rights laws, and some Republicans supported extending New Deal programs. So there were quite a few liberal Republicans, as well.

We’re a long way from mid-century America today. No one favors racial segregation anymore. Cultural conformity has largely vanished. In an affluent nation, we have been able to choose different lifestyles, to inhabit different cultural niches.

The mainline Protestant churches have lost members, while more Americans identify themselves as secular or as evangelical Christians. Increasingly, we choose to live in neighborhoods and metro areas dominated by those who share our cultural and political views.

The bipartisan agreement on foreign policy that prevailed for two postwar decades ended as doves came to dominate the Democratic Party, while hawks became Republican. The abortion issue, which split both parties’ constituencies in the 1970s, in time became a defining issue for both parties, as pro-lifers abandoned the Democrats and pro-choicers the Republicans.

All of which leaves little room for centrists, who in any case are a diverse lot – libertarians who are conservative on economics and liberal on cultural issues, traditionalists who are liberal on economics and conservative on cultural issues. You can find a few members of Congress who fall in those camps, but not many.

The polarization of our politics is increased somewhat by partisan district lines. But overall, it’s a reflection of our society and a result of the increasing intrusiveness and involvement of government in areas of life that used to be left alone. Changing longstanding laws on abortion and gay rights was bound to stir controversy and heated involvement on both sides. Issues of war and peace naturally arouse strong partisan views.

In the last 16 months, the Obama Democrats’ proposals to vastly increase the size and scope of the federal government and to put federal spending on the way to doubling the national debt as a percentage of the economy have tended to sweep these cultural and foreign policy issues aside. They have increased the polarization of the parties, but have also produced some Democratic primary battles between supporters and opponents of the Obama program. The result could be a little less polarization – but don’t count on it.

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