As the poet predicted, the center cannot hold. But it’s not because both the right and left are tearing at it equally. In an age in which journalism and punditry are terrorized by the demands of false equivalency, it is time to speak a simple truth: conservatives are to blame.
It was not liberals who ended the career of Richard Lugar. The longest-serving Republican in the Senate was unceremoniously dumped last week by the Tea Party fringe. He was not, as the saying goes, caught with a dead girl or a live boy. He was just too doggone moderate, too ready to compromise with the Democrats. Thanks for that, Senator Lugar. Oh, and you’re fired.
Today’s Republicans are different. They truly have put partisanship ahead of patriotism, as the political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann document in their book, Even Worse Than it Looks. “The GOP,” they write, “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Careful, guys, they’re going to revoke your pundit license. Don’t you know you’re supposed to say “Both sides are to blame”? Their response is powerful—and as damning of conventional media analysis as it is of the GOP: “‘Both sides do it’ or ‘There is plenty of blame to go around,’” they write, “are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias.” They describe the standard calculus of compromise—both sides moving toward the middle—as “a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.”
Sure, the Democrats hated George W. Bush. But when he wanted to meet them halfway on education, even Ted Kennedy helped him. And when he wanted to make an impressive commitment to fighting AIDS, TB, and malaria in Africa, Harry Reid and Joe Biden—along with Richard Lugar—made it happen.
Why has the GOP gone off this far-right cliff? As he has so often, E.J. Dionne has written a brilliant new book, and it places our current division in political and cultural context. In Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne points out that one of the reasons we can’t agree on where we’re going is that we can’t even agree on where we’ve been—or who we are. Are we, as Tea Party activists claim, a nation born from a tax revolt, created to oppose government? Dionne says no. The Founders, he writes, certainly opposed the oppressive, tyrannical rule of George III, but they advocated self-government, not no government. Historically, Dionne writes, Americans have believed that We The People “were able to see democratic government as a constructive force in our national life and to use it in creative ways.” A far different vision from the Tea Party, which, Dionne notes, “casts government as inherently oppressive, necessarily wasteful, and nearly always damaging to our nation’s growth and prosperity.”
So how do we square the circle? Dionne argues that we must honor the tensions between two strains of the American Dream: the rugged individualists who respect those who make it on their own; and the communitarians who revere the Americans who help their neighbors, fight our fires, and wage our wars. Both are central to the American character. Drift too far toward radical individualism and you risk changing our national motto from “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”) to “Canis Canem Edit” (“Dog Eat Dog”). But if you swerve too far into overweening communitarianism, you risk crushing the entrepreneurial dream that drives so many to excel. Read a Barack Obama speech. He routinely praises entrepreneurs. He lauds Warren Buffett and hosted Steve Jobs’s widow in the first lady’s box at the State of the Union address. Does any Republican honor a communitarian hero that way? No way. Mitt Romney speaks contemptuously of “union bosses,” Rick Santorum attacks public schools as “factories,” and Sarah Palin mocks community organizers.
Dionne argues that we had the right balance for much of the 20th century. Yes, government grew. But so did personal freedom, individual liberty, and middle-class prosperity. The common good did not choke off individual initiative, nor did expanding personal liberty crush community.
How do we get our balance back? Don’t blame the politicians. Blame ourselves. As long as we continue to vote for politicians who see no legitimacy in common goals, who demonize every public enterprise—from public schools to Social Security—we should not be shocked that one political party sees compromise as evil. Without the oil of compromise, the gears of progress will continue to lock.