But once upon a time, there were right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats, as well as a good many centrists from both parties who were near the top of the “bell curve” on any given issue. There were extended periods of time when people seemed to have a general understanding that, philosophically at least, the best position on almost any spectrum is somewhere near the middle.
In the past couple of decades, though, America seems to have drifted toward greater polarization than ever before. I leave it to sociologists to figure out why, but I have a hunch that at least part of the problem is information overload: with new science illuminating human understanding of everything from the birth of the universe to global climate change to the complexities of the human genome, many have opted out of thinking about all that by taking refuge in religion. Theirs is a reassuringly simple, authoritarian world, where everything that needs to be known is written in the Bible and “Christian” leaders tell their followers what to believe. No need to think or deal with the discomfort of being uncertain.
The Christian right has certainly been a major factor in the radicalization—and subsequent marginalization—of the Republican party. Meanwhile, lots of people were getting rich by manipulating public sentiment in favor of big business, unfettered to the greatest degree possible by government regulation and oversight. If you ignore the long-term effects of unbridled capitalism—degradations to the well-being of the poor and middle class, the economy, and the planet—you could make a case that “letting the market take care of things” seemed to be working—until about a year ago, when the house of cards came tumbling down.
Another interesting turn of events is the split that seems to be occurring in what’s left of the Republican Party between plain ol’ generic, vanilla-flavored “Republicans” and the die-hard “Conservatives”—the FOX News fanatics that until recently were considered more or less the foundation of the Republican “base.” But now we have a race for a Congressional seat in New York in which Sarah Palin, among others, has snubbed the mainstream Republican candidate in favor of the even more right-wing Conservative Party contender.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the spectrum, deep dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and Republican ways of doing things led to calls for decisive change. Enter Barack Obama, with his rallying cry, “Yes, we can!” His administration immediately set about implementing changes in many aspects of public life that have only been discussed—sometimes in whispers, for fear of incurring the wrath of the all-powerful right. Suddenly there are new attitudes toward foreign countries and “enemy combatants,” new banking regulations, new ways of looking at health care, and so much more.
So much change happening so fast is refreshing for progressives, who’ve long been weary of waiting and hoping for someone to do something about America’s major problems. But the pace of change is uncomfortable for many who, simply by virtue of the way their brains are wired, most likely have average or less-than-average tolerance for change. Hence, we see the emergence of a group called the Blue Dog Democrats, who are politically right of the progressive end of their party and tend to join with Republicans in crying, “Wait! Stop! Slow down!”
The overall result of these trends is a very interesting state of affairs. To borrow a phrase Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin.’” Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center have turned up the following results:
- Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 35% to 23%.
- Voters who identify as “independent” now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.
- The number of people identifying as Independents is increasing at a much steeper rate than ever before.
So let’s review what we seem to have now. Instead of just the two parties, there are politicians (and, increasingly, voters) who identify as one of the following: Conservative, mainstream Republican, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, and Progressive. Then there are a very large number of politically active Americans called “Independents” who may or may not fit anywhere along the traditional right-to-left political spectrum.
Of course, strategists on both sides of the traditional political aisle are scrambling to figure out just who these “independents” are and what they want. But meanwhile, everyone agrees that we are at a pivotal point in history, and the future of the country and the planet hinges on decisions being made in Washington.
This is obviously a brief commentary on a very large topic, and as you might expect, I’ll have further thoughts to share on the subject. I’ll also be very interested in comments from readers. Meanhwhile, I leave you with some relevant remarks from Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”