Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.
Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
– Stealers Wheel – 1972
So here we are in 2012, 10 months away from electing a president… but where is that, exactly?
Reminds me of another relevant tune from my favorite band of all time, Steely Dan – Do it Again:
When you know she’s no high climber
Then you find your only friend
In a room with your two timer
And you’re sure you’re near the end
Then you love a little wild one
And she brings you only sorrow
All the time you know she’s smilin’
You’ll be on your knees tomorrow
You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin’ ’round and ’round
You go back Jack do it again
Now you swear and kick and beg us
That you’re not a gamblin’ man
Then you find you’re back in Vegas
With a handle in your hand
Your black cards can make you money
So you hide them when you’re able
In the land of milk and honey
You must put them on the table
We are in an age of constant political bickering, hyper-partisanship and rancor. We seem to be stuck in the middle of some sort of political and societal transformation that doesn’t have enough impetus to complete that transformation but too much to return to a stasis point…it continues to consume inordinate amounts of our energy while struggling to find an equilibrium point, energy that is simply wasted as our country drifts. This directionless drift is putting America at risk on the world stage – both politically and economically.
Surprisingly enough, I don’t think that partisanship is the real issue.
Gallup just released a couple of bits of information that provide some insight to what I think causes the whispsaw nature of contemporary politics. Conservatives cheered the announcement that we lead in people who identify as such.
A 40% to 21% lead – should be reason to cheer, right? I’m not so sure. It was 37/22 conservative in 2008 and a “progressive” Democrat was elected with 53% of the popular vote.
How do I explain it? I think that Gallup stumbles across it. While they note that we are continuing to become more politically polarized…
Gallup measures political ideology by asking Americans to say whether their political views are very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal. Relatively few Americans identify with either extreme on this scale, although 2 in 10 Republicans self-identify as very conservative — double the proportion of Democrats calling themselves very liberal… the country became more politically polarized, with the percentages of Americans calling themselves either “conservative” or “liberal” each increasing.
…and the middle is shrinking…
The percentage of Americans calling themselves “moderate” has gradually diminished in the U.S. since it was 43% in 1992. That is the year Gallup started routinely measuring ideology with the current question. It fell to 39% in 2002 and has been 35% since 2010.
…the real cause of the volatility rests in that shrinking group of “committed moderates”. This is an oxymoron if I have ever heard one, how one can be committed to being non-committal is beyond my intellectual grasp.
If we combine the two charts and assume that Republicans lean conservative and Democrats lean liberal, we can take the ideological classification of “moderate” and multiply those percentages by the political identification and when we do we get a full 31% of Republicans, Democrats and Independents that are fall under the category of the perpetually undecided.
In this age of clear demarcation between ideologies, how is it possible that 31% of those polled can answer “I don’t know” or “no opinion” when asked what they support? If they can’t decide now, they will never be able to decide.
My theory is that this is the product of 50 years of relativism and “diversity” – where we are taught that no system of government, religion, etc. is objectively superior to another and we must never judge. These “moderates” learned this lesson well.
We are more polarized, that is true. I don’t see that as a bad thing, that means that we have greater groups of people who know what they are for (even if the group to the left is wrong) but as the moderates shrink, they become even more influential, especially in respect to national elections. If you look at the “leaners”, it is clear that a segment of “moderates” as small as 5%, maybe even 1%, can decide an election in contradiction to a plurality of one half of the electorate or the other.
This is why I harp on culture because until one ideology can get over 50% in core supporters and “leaners”, this country will still be the political equivalent of an amoeba with nothing but Brownian movement as a motivator.
If we look just a little beyond the Gallup poll numbers, we can see that there are really four major forces in play (expressed through the political ideologies from Republicans, Democrats and Independents) that share complex relationships. Some are directly oppositional, some share alliances, some seek to eliminate the others and replace them. For example, these four forces all promise to manage economies and take care of the less fortunate, but by substantially different methods.
The four major forces in contention are democracy, communism, society and government.
In the matrix, when society and democracy has the most power, the result is individualism. If you consider the evolution of America, this is the quadrant of our founding. Even though we were technically under a monarchy, the therapy of distance applies – that is to say that the Colonies were far too large and too far away from the center of power in London to be effectively controlled or governed by a King and the true management of society and government was conducted by the social mores and by religious beliefs. Democracy was evident in the choice of the individual because there was no concept of a large communal structure on the frontier. Due to the frequent isolation of the people who explored, pushed the boundaries farther west, and then lived on the edge of Western civilization decisions necessarily relied on the individual.
After the advent of the Revolutionary War and the subsequent founding of our nation, government became a living entity and began to assume power from society, taking on the management of interpersonal activities, such as trade and legal arrangements. Being the common convention of the time, the strong feeling of independence and individualism led to the creation of the Constitution and its enumerated powers. Recognizing that there were still limitations of distance, time and communication and that there were distinct and individual regional differences, the Founders wisely debated the wisdom of a strong central government versus smaller units (the States) and decided in favor of preserving the power of the individual and relegating anything not specifically necessary for maintenance of a strong national union to the individual states, thereby keeping the management of the people’s affairs strongly in their hands. As the role of society gave way to the power of organized government, the power of democracy remained strong and we moved into the upper left quadrant, a representative republic.
This is where we remained until the seemingly oppositional forces of economic growth from industrialization and the communistic idea of social organization began to co-develop. The explosive growth of the American industrial revolution and the innovations that came from it allowed an improvement in quality of life that has been unparalleled in human history. Far from depending on the strength of one’s back, through the invention of labor saving and labor multiplying mechanisms (the steam engine, the cotton gin, the steam shovel), the energy needed to drive them (the discovery of oil and natural gas) and the drive to reform and exploit the natural environment to support human need (railroads, highways, irrigation, dams for flood control and electric generation, chemical fertilizers and modern methods of food production). This evolution allowed people to consider activities (leisure, education, entertainment) other than those only focused on survival. Where in the past, the survival was an individual pursuit (dependent upon the ability of the individual to hunt, gather or conduct subsistence farming), survival became more interconnected and moved back into the province of society… as technology and society evolved, individual knowledge and skills became more “siloed” and interdependence was required for progress and survival.
Even though these interactions were driven by free enterprise and lassiez-faire capitalism, as society regained influence with a greater concern for itself via the greater interconnection, we moved into the quadrant where collectivism became more powerful than individualism, moving us closer to communistic control. This is evident in the societal changes as a result of the Great Depression and the subsequent comfort of the American people with collectivist (and in some cases, socialist) programs and philosophies.
The next step seems to be under way. To cement control, the natural response of collectivist society is to guarantee its survival and propagation into the future by enshrining that belief in law through government. A collectivist society readily accepts the transfer of control to government as long as it can be assured that the behaviors needed to sustain it will become a matter of law. Examples of that today are the shift from church and faith based aid, something traditionally supplied by the private sector (churches, Salvation Army, charities, etc.) to governmental welfare programs, setting a “minimum” wage in lieu of allowing the market to value labor and affirmative action/quotas. The final step is the movement into the lower left quadrant to totalitarian control of the population where democracy and society have no power and the government and communist ideology have total control.
Although this will be, it should not be looked upon as an “alarmist” treatise. There is a zone of political stability that we have managed to stay within that exemplifies the natural variation of political thought in America. This “give and take” has been going on in our country since the early 1900’s with no clear winner. We have rotated through every quadrant, orbiting around the center point, with Congresses and presidential administrations of every range – Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and now Obama. Without coming apart at the seams, we have existed through the imbalanced economies of the industrial revolution, the national pride and national unity of two world wars, the division of several more military conflicts, the staid conformity of the 50’s, the racial, social and sexual revolution of the 60’s, several economic recessions and booms and two massive economic disruptions.
As can be demonstrated, the strongest attempts to break out of this stability zone have come during left leaning administrations when the strength of collectivist/big government thought was in solid control. From about 1913 until the late 1950’s, events like the Great Depression, the economic transformation post WWII, and the social upheaval of the ‘60’s gave opportunities for things like the Social Security Act of 1935, government involvement in home and agricultural finance, education and the expansion of the welfare state via the “Great Society” programs of the Johnson administration.
When classic liberal/modern conservative thought began to organize under the auspices of William F. Buckley and M. Stanton Evans, it initiated a pull back toward the upper right quadrant and the unwinding of a half century of social engineering. Buckley’s publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951 and Evans’ articulation of conservative principles via the Sharon Statement of 1961 started the transformation that resulted in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, the eventual presidency of Ronald Reagan and the Republican control of Congress in 1994 (after 40 years of Democrat control).
The current confluence of severe economic conditions and a political class desirous of control combined with a willing ignorance of the history of the principles of the founding of America (or perhaps it is not ignorance but the product of several generations of Americans who have been taught an alternate or incomplete version of our history) has brought about another opportunity for governmental and societal movement of a tectonic magnitude. The Affordable Care Act, Cap and Trade, promulgation of control through bureaucratic /extralegal fiat (agency rules/executive orders/judicial activism), and direct governmental involvement in the financial and general industry are manifestations of this direction. Obama’s recent power grabs, as he becomes more of a unitary executive than Bush ever was – Bush was a piker in comparison, are simply extensions of the socialist beliefs in “experts” in command of central planning and control.
We are lurching toward more and more legislative control over our citizens while pursuing ever more communistic policies, pulling us inexorably toward the totalitarian quadrant. Democrats are the drivers of this change but the weakness of the establishment Republicans makes them complicit. Between the drive of the left and the co-dependency of the Republicans, we have seen change so gradual that we have a current generation of voters who cannot conceptualize a society of independence – it seems strange but there will be a group of first time voters in 2012 who will have been born in the second year of the first Clinton administration and their first memories of politics will be the Bush years…the Reagan Revolution is but a footnote in a history book.
And yet I am forced by my belief in the necessity of electability to support Romney. Helluva position to be put in, isn’t it?
The danger comes if we break out of the area of political stability too rapidly and into any one of the quadrants, especially into the “totalitarian” quadrant. Since politics is like physics, for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Although there is a great deal of concern about “taking care” of members of society and Americans are altruistic at their core, they also have a strong sense of independence and individuality.
We have conditioned our government and society to be in balance in this area and to reset the center point will cause significant social upheaval and possibly revolution. We saw such an outbreak in the 1960’s but have not seen the equivalent on the conservative side. The proponents of conservative thought have been lacking in commitment to bring about the kind of long term change that liberals have been successful in executing. If we are to change the direction of America – that is the change we need to be hoping for.