The Death of Common Sense Politics

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Those words by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ring true some fifty-five years after they were spoken, but not for the original reason they were intended to be remembered for. A bastion of the liberty epoch, the firing gun for the libertarian movement inside the Republican Party, that’s what Goldwater wanted this quote, and his 1964 run for the Presidency, to be remembered for. One final FU to the candidate whom he had beaten for the GOP Nomination in 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Yet, in the end, neither man could possibly have the last laugh because, the last laugh would be shared not by either man’s movement or wing, but rather the malevolent forces that very quote helped to create. Some fifty-five years later, this quote should be remembered as the start of a movement which has radically diverged from its original goal and in the end, what it did not help to create was the very same thing it set out to create.

Pragmatism. Defined by Merriam-Webster as a “practical approach to problems and affairs”. A principle in and of itself because, instead of choosing the ideologically appealing approach-so often called principles when in reality those lie much above partisanship-the answer is simply to strike the approach which best fits the situation. The pragmatic answer though has fallen into disrepute in the modern era, not because the pragmatic approach to things is some sort of unprincipled approach to questions of the day, but because the pragmatic approach has become so associated with a lack of principles that pragmatism-moderation-has almost become a dirty word. This is largely attributable to two main factors, in reality. First, the increasing focus on ideological conformity that parties and movements push, especially on matters of conscience or matters like foreign policy where ideology has never been a factor in solving anything (at least speaking of American political ideologies). Second, the resultant problems that this ideological purity testing has created. The second is an oblique result of the first it must be stated and both have contributed to the death of the center ground in politics.

The phenomena of whipping is hardly a new thing, it wasn’t introduced in the US until around 1900 when James Albertus Tawney and Oscar Underwood began serving in that position to help increase partisan unity and help to pass/block legislation as desired by party leaders, though at first, the phenomena of whipping proved an ineffective manner of partisan control in the United States. Influence was partly based on your ability to gain support from your colleagues and not necessarily on your ability to curry favor with party elites who could influence appointments and even challenges towards an incumbent. Committee chairmen were arguably the most powerful men on Capitol Hill up until very recently as they influenced which legislation made it to the floor and which didn’t. While bitter sectarian and partisan divides reared their ugly heads here during the debates over Civil Rights in the 1960s, in the end, the political processes which gave more power to higher standing officials-in this case, party leaders and executives-won out. As this occured, the conformity to ideological positions taken by those higher standing officials became more valuable. While it is impossible to point to just a singular instance where the idea of individual influence eroded completely in the face of leadership influence, it is possible to see a series of points where this occurred, starting in the aftermath of the Great Society and reaching a fever pitch with the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Though, it might be said, that the partisan means to achieve the ends were never justified and a pragmatic solution which encouraged all to come on board would’ve been preferable to the partisan operations which opposition to significant pieces of legislation became afterward.

Ideological conformity became an especially potent power in the 1990s with the Republican Revolution. It was no accident that a nominal centrist in Bill Clinton was challenged in his authority by a conservative Republican in Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. In reasserting the dominance of the legislative branch-and I use this term very loosely here-Gingrich actually contributed to the death of pragmatic politics. The legislative branch had always been about pushing through items on one’s agenda, but the legislative branch had never been about weaponized partisan warfare yet. The mission which Gingrich, and all other subsequent Speakers, maintained and worked towards was the imposition of totalitarian majority rule. Instead of a majority in the House deciding policy, however partisan or ideological it may be, the subsequent majority was the majority imposing its will on the minority. This sort of ideological nuclear warfare, however effective it may be with pure partisans, has directly lead to the death of common sense politics because it continued, and accelerated the process, of focusing on ideological goals to the complete exclusion of goals for the nation.

While it cannot be argued that for the parties’ bases that this has not been an overall successful development, it can be argued that for the nation as a whole that it has not. The rise of the Obama Coalition and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was largely a reaction to what was viewed as a relatively bloodthirsty Bush administration which had continued to try to impose its will on the people of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now while the strategy of abandonment of any nation after the fall of its government has its pitfalls, we’ll get there in another post, there is something to be said that for all the decrying of reactionary politics that reactionary politics was quick to make a comeback. Economic stimulus and what was viewed by many small-government types, including at one time myself, as a federal grab on the healthcare system with the Affordable Care Act led to the rise of the Tea Party Movement which subsequently kicked out many moderates of both stripes in 2010 and there soon after. It was no surprise after all. Both parties had doubled down on what it meant to be a Republican or a Democrat, it was no longer acceptable in some Democratic circles to be opposed to Barack Obama-something which was unthinkable during the days of Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter (look up the Draft Humphrey Movement) or Harry Truman. Likewise, it was anathema for a Republican to espouse anything other than conservative orthodoxy when it came to things such as LGBT+ rights, abortion, gun rights, etc. While the overwhelming majority of Democrats were “in line” with Barack Obama, there were many Republicans, such as Richard Lugar notably, who were not Tea Party men and women by any stretch of the imagination. The abandonment of moderates never lead to significant losses for the GOP, at least initially, but the abandonment of pragmatic, common sense politics did, however, lose seats for the Democrats. If 2010 was a tsunami, then 2014 was a veritable tidal wave with Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, and Mark Begich-all notable moderates-passing by the wayside….to Republicans.

Contrary to the thoughts of Virginia State Delegate Lee Carter, this has not been as a primary result of racial animus or because of casual acceptance of racism in the name of advancement of a particular group in society. As a resident of an area that has voted overwhelmingly for the GOP since 2010, let me refute that personally. The Democratic Party has simply been viewed as too extreme on the issues to be voted in. That’s not to say that Democrats should move towards the centre. Rather, as I stated to the Delegate, Democrats should better articulate why they believe what they believe than take the route of victimization and demonization that he, and many others on the left of his party, seem more than willing to take. The losses of Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor had more to do with the national Democratic Party’s abandonment of a particular brand of moderate politics which appealed to rural voters rather than an unfeeling brand of politics which moved more towards otherization than anything else. After all, Thad Cochran, probably the arch-moderate of Republicans on Capitol Hill after the retirement of Richard Lugar, won re-election because his party was associated with the brand of radical politics that voters liked. Pragmatic politics have been on the down and out for the better part of the last fifty years, not because they’ve failed to resonate with voters, but because a premium has been placed on ideological purity among voters. Solutions are hyper-nationalized and intra-party work is demonized as antithetical to the ideals of ideology. Though, this isn’t, even in our fraught times, always the case.

However, 2014 was a banner year for the moderate overall. Moderate politics, the Rockefeller Republican brand of it anyways, triumphed in two states which were the Blue Ocean Republicans were never supposed to triumph in in Maryland and Massachusetts. (Though let it be known that Massachusetts had been represented by Republicans on the national stage in the Senate as late as 2010, even if Scott Brown was decidedly not a moderate, and in the National Governors’ Association by Mitt Romney as late as 2006.) The triumphs of Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts were really not supposed to happen by the rules of conventional politics, yet they did anyway. Both states chose to buck the trends of partisanship-this is not to say, however, that Martin O’Malley or Deval Patrick were either transparently partisan or ideological Governors-instead choosing to stand with the politics of pragmatism. They were joined in this endeavour of bucking the trend of partisan politics by Illinois with its newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner. 2014 was also the year in which a candidate who openly espoused as a third-party matter the principles of pragmatism and moderation made Rhode Island’s Gubernatorial election a three-way race, allowing for the election of another moderate in Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo.

2014 was the first time in nearly 20 years that identifiably moderate candidates, i.e. those who ran on the principles of pragmatism instead of narrowly ideological or partisan goals, won major office. This was partly due to the revival of moderate Republican ideals which, while they espouse limited government, remain socially quite liberal (especially so in the case of Charlie Baker) and remain pragmatic on fiscal issues. That Hogan, Baker, and 2016 addition to the club Phil Scott of Vermont won reelection in 2018 is largely a testament to the fact that the three remain above partisan politics. Baker beat back a primary challenge by an especially ideological opponent, though his state party has been taken over by narrowly ideological officials, officials which seem hell-bent on running the Massachusetts GOP into the ground. Though, in the end, each of them provides a counterpoint to the idea of the death of common sense politics. Largely because each would rather represent all rather than some. A contentious idea, but one that might just lead to a moderate revival.

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Moderate politics has always been a contentious proposition in the United States. In the age of less contentious ideological battles, the middle ground was easier to stake out. This was largely because it was an assumed proposition that a legislator could only act in the best interests of their state or constituents. How wrong that proposition has turned out to be in the twenty-first century. Over the course of the last half century, and truly since the Republican Revolution of 1994 which swept Newt Gingrich into the office of Speaker of the House to play the role of mortal foe to Bill Clinton, the United States has failed to place stock on what politically matters-effective representation of constituents-to the complete advocation instead of the blithely partisan. Over the last twenty-five years, the long-extolled breed of moderates-the Blue Dog Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans-has fallen by the wayside, instead the die has been cast for more extreme partisan variations of men and women who share no interest in compromise and who share no interest in effectively representing their constituents. The death of common sense politics is truly on us.

In mentioning the causes which led to the defeat of several moderate Democrats in 2014, I referred specifically to “over-nationalization of solutions”. Let me explain what that means in concise terms, as this gives rise to the second reason for the death of common sense politics. While I cannot be said to be a proponent of libertarian-style decentralization of politics, delegating nearly all authority over to the states, this principle-largely recognized as federalism, even if we won’t say it-actually helped to predominate the influence of individuals rather than strict adherence to dogma. In effect, the decentralization of power into many individuals’ hands helped to allow for more compromise because, simply, each individual had more influence to give. While this inherently meant less to the idea of state predominance, it had an awful lot of credence in that party discipline remained a relatively unfeared phenomena until the Republican Revolution. When legislating became a function of party help and party organization and ideology rather than work between individuals, solutions necessarily became an overarchingly national idea because only here were the leashes tight enough for startlingly great reforms and policies to be passed. This is not to say that our state houses today do not have value, but rather to say that their value has been diminished.

So, how did ideological purity testing become a standard of modern-day politics? And why did it contribute to the death of common sense, pragmatic politics?  Ideological purity testing became a standard of modern-day politics because it became a measuring stick. With ideology and views especially weaponized by the Tea Party Movement in the GOP in the early 2010s, it no longer narrowly sufficed for candidates to simply identify as something, they had to take the part too. This has stifled the advancement of the center because the center can no longer remain viable on a federal level. Ideological purity testing results in many things. It determines which candidates can, and will, receive support from any one of a number of PACs and Super PACs run by political parties and organizations. Oftentimes, it determines which candidates are officially supported by party leaders. Ideological conformity can even, if you’re a lucky GOP candidate, win you the copy-and-paste Twitter endorsement of the President of the United States.

Though, there is also a backlash to this standard that mustn’t be dismissed either. The rise of extremist organizations inside both parties. The Tea Party movement, while initially based on conservative principles inside a party members saw as rapidly liberalizing, has become a movement of reactionaries who oftentimes identify with nationalism and, because they view it as the only potential vehicle for their particular concerns, blithely go along with policies in the GOP they would have viewed as anathema just eight years ago. This has been coupled, since 2016, with the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America. This grouping can be rightly called the Left’s answer to the Tea Party-radical, purely ideological, and utterly naïve in the goals they hope to achieve. While ideological purity testing has not hit the left as hard as the right, this has largely been because the DSA began as a national movement and has only truly affected national races rather than its creation as a grassroots phenomenon like the Tea Party.

Though, in the end, ideological purity tests have become a measuring stick by which parties appraise their candidates now. How has this contributed to the death of the centre? How has this contributed to the death of common sense, pragmatic politics? Simply put, ideological purity testing has contributed to the death of common sense politics because politics becomes a question of partisan expediency with them. It has become fashionable for Democratic candidates on the 2020 trail to speak about “Medicare-for-all” healthcare plans and some form of free tertiary education, this has been because of the influence of groups which view this as measuring stick issues. The 2016 GOP nomination was largely contested on the basis of immigration and trade, not because these were issues that Americans at large were largely divided on in terms of a solution, but because these were issues that GOP leaders were largely divided on. It’s not a coincidence that as politics have become more national that solutions have become less national and only notionally so. A nationalization of politics which corresponded less with the centralization of power would not have this problem, I’d wager. Certainly something which has led to the dearth of sane and workable solutions in our nation today.

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So, looking back. Are centrist, pragmatic, and common sense politics really dead? I’d argue that while they took a bruising in the name of ideological conformity in the early 2000s, they aren’t dead yet. The election of several high-profile, and popular, moderate politicians still yet proves the viability of a politics based on utility and workability and not on politics which focuses on the half over the whole. Though, if there’s one thing we must note, it’s that ideological purity tests have directly contributed to the issues we’re experiencing and they still yet pose centrist politics a mortal danger.

How exactly do we plan to move past mortal dangers and put pragmatic politics back into power, or even into the wilderness?

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In the next article in this series, I’ll be examining potential avenues for a moderate revival, using the politics of the Liberal Democratic Party of Great Britain as a guide. Spoiler alert in advance, the answer for moderates is not to play the part of a spoiler.

Though, to look in the future, sometimes the answer is to look in the past.

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