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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Origins and Consequences of Polarization

There’s another interesting debate underway at the New Republic site between Boston College’s Alan Wolfe and George Mason’s Peter Berkowitz, continued from earlier essays by Wolfe at TNR and Berkowitz at The Weekly Standard. Its ostensible subject is whether Wolfe was engaging in Dinesh D’Souza-style tactics a few years back when he wrote about the tendency of some contemporary U.S. conservatives to echo the “friends and enemies” interpretation of politics by the German thinker Carl Schmitt (a charge made by Berkowitz in response to Wolfe’s recent attack on D’Souza in The New York Times Book Review). Its more immediate significance is the light it casts on the origins of the current climate of polarization in American politics, and what those who deplore it can do about it.This is an important topic to Alan Wolfe (and to myself), as someone who has found himself, “in the last six years, shifting to the left” in response to the extremism and take-no-prisoners politics and policies of the reigning conservative GOP. Is the act of pointing out the dangerous recent tendencies of “the other side” in terms of their extraordinary violation of U.S. political traditions in any way morally equivalent to the violation itself? And if, as Wolfe does, you become convinced that alarmingly large segments of “the other side” have lost any interest whatsoever in rational discourse or fair competition, and are simply interested in power by any means, do you have any obligation to keep trying to engage them rationally?In his TNR essay, Wolfe responds to Berkowitz’s lecture about improper attribution of illiberal (in the civic sense) habits to conservatives in words that many of us frustrated “centrists” would echo:

[Berkowitz] finds no reason to believe that Bush v. Gore was settled in a partisan manner, merely noting that it was a “hard case.” He claims that the left “shamelessly misrepresented” Bush’s national security policies without even mentioning the fact that the Bush administration misrepresented its reasons for going to war in Iraq. He views Bush as a moderate and judicious politician, ignoring the president’s efforts–so discomforting to more principled conservatives–to concentrate unchecked power in the Oval Office. In the world according to Peter Berkowitz, there are no right-wing bloggers calling the president’s critics traitors, no Swift-boating of Democratic candidates, no violations of civil liberty associated with our Republican president, no authorized leaks of the names of CIA agents, no dramatic increase in the use of presidential signing statements, no use of torture, no suspension of habeas corpus, no breaks with our historic allies over such methods, no biased editorial pages and networks, no Rush Limbaughs, no vigilantes patrolling our borders, no invented quotations from Abraham Lincoln, no manipulations of intelligence, no appeals to racial and religious bigotry. Instead there is just ugly venom manifested by, of all people, me.

Wolfe could just have easily been addressing the “plague-on-both-houses” journalists who view polarization as a joint project of left and right, and fail to assign any particular responsibility for it to anyone in particular. And he could just have easily gone back well beyond 2000 to the Cultural Right’s accusations that “liberals” were destroying the family, murdering children by the millions, plotting the replacement of Christianity by paganism, and seeking the extinction of U.S. sovereignty; to the mammoth Clinton-hating industry of the 1990s; and to the impeachment effort against Clinton himself. And when it comes for culpability for the Center-Left’s abandonment of the pacific rhetoric and habits of the past, Wolfe could also have mentioned the unmistakable determination of the Rove-DeLay leadership of the GOP to destroy “moderate” progressivism as a political option, as the only way for a base-conservative Republican party to win elections. There is, of course, a real underlying disagreement on the Left about how to deal with the “other side’s” polarizing strategy and the delegitimization of rational discourse that has flowed from it. Some progressives no doubt love the current climate, think it’s the natural, and indeed, the only “principled” way to conduct politics, tend to admire their conservative enemies far more than their own “centrist” allies, and would go henceforth from base-mobilizing election to base-mobilizing election, world without end. Some think the electorate will reward the Center-Left with a default victory so long as it does not counter-polarize. And still others (a group in which I count myself, and probably Alan Wolfe) think we have to get the current toxic brand of conservatives completely out of power and in a marginalized position in the GOP before we can return to a different and more rational brand of politics in which elections are largely won and lost on the basis of competing policies and their real-life consequences. For all the talk of the “Bush-hating Left” in the Democratic Party, it’s us “centrists” who really have reason to loathe the Bush-Cheney administration and its conservative allies with a special intensity. They’ve ruined everything they’ve touched, including some previously “liberal” causes like democracy-promotion, open trade, education reform, and market-based approaches to solving public problems. They’ve made the very concept of bipartisanship suspect. And they’ve deliberately, aggressively, consciously poisoned the ground of the political center. Until the Right and the GOP pay a big price for that, they have no standing whatsoever to act aggrieved when someone like Alan Wolfe examines the roots of their betrayal of the politics of reason and civility.

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