Weekly Standard: The Politics Of Polarization

May 24, 2012

Jeffrey Bell is policy director of the American Principles Project and author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism.

The organization "Americans Elect" spent $35 million on a new "centrist" party and nobody came. In announcing that no presidential candidate had received the 10,000 online votes needed to qualify for its online convention, the group's chief executive, Kahlil Byrd, said there was "an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership, and millions of Americans who have supported Americans Elect to see a credible candidate emerge from this process." Alas, the group would have to change its "people power" rules and turn its process into an elitist, top-down affair in order to qualify its current frontrunner — former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned-Republican who waged a microscopic campaign early this year for the GOP nomination — much less anyone further back in the standings.

Byrd told sympathetic liberal columnist Dana Milbank that the absence of a credible candidate wasn't for lack of trying: "We've had hundreds of [candidate] briefings. We have met with current and former governors, current and former senators, university presidents, think tanks, mayors of large cities, and people who have been running Fortune 300 companies." Not only did Americans Elect attract 3.5 million people to its website and qualify for the presidential ballot in 29 states, but polls showed 40 percent or more of American voters were open to an alternative to the two major parties.

Even so, 2012 is not looking like an election that will attract the next Ross Perot, George Wallace, or Robert La Follette. And the reason is simple: America's two parties are polarized as never before. Their candidates aim to take the nation in diametrically opposite directions in just about every policy area.

Take today's most prominent social issue. When President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage, he said he favored letting each state make its own decision. But that claim is belied by his administration's campaign, in the courts and Congress, to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 — the main legal barrier to judicial imposition of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. If Obama wins, he will almost certainly appoint Supreme Court justices who would effectively override the wishes of referendum voters in 32 states. If Mitt Romney wins, the momentum will shift to social conservatives, who will continue to defend traditional marriage.

The day before Obama completed his evolution on marriage, North Carolina gave 61 percent of the vote to a state constitutional amendment that bans not just same-sex marriage, but also same-sex civil unions. North Carolina is a state Barack Obama carried in 2008 and hopes to carry in 2012, as witness the fact that Team Obama opted to hold the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Why, so soon after a striking repudiation of gay marriage in a target state, would the president move aggressively in the opposite direction?

In his hastily arranged interview with ABC reporter Robin Roberts, Obama tried to attribute the recent change in his thinking to the empathy of daughters Sasha and Malia toward the gay parents of some of their friends. But within a fairly short time, the real reason appeared in off-the-record press interviews: Vice President Biden's outspokenness in a Meet the Press interview two days before the North Carolina referendum simply moved forward a decision that had been made inevitable by the sentiment of the Democratic base. Grass-roots delegates were going to write an endorsement of same-sex marriage into the Democratic national platform no matter what the president did. What's more, one-sixth of his high-dollar fundraisers have identified themselves as gay, and most of the rest of the party's high-dollar financial base backs same-sex marriage as well.

Why would anyone on either side of this intense debate — committed social conservatives or committed social liberals — look for a "centrist" alternative that might lessen the chances of the party that takes their side of the argument? The polarization of the two parties on economic, size-of-government, and foreign policy/national defense issues may be less striking, but not much.

Washington elite opinion disapproves sternly of partisan polarization, particularly when it emanates from the right. The Republican primary defeat of six-term Indiana senator Richard Lugar was especially galling, coming as it did the same day as the North Carolina marriage referendum (and by the same 61 percent landslide margin) and on the heels of the even more unbearable retirement of Maine's Olympia Snowe, one of the last non-polarizing (that is, liberal) Republican senators.

Like the push to lock in the Democratic party's commitment to same-sex marriage, the defeat of Lugar was the work of his party's ideological base. The biggest event in Republican politics in the Obama years has been the rise of the Tea Party, which was ignited by CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli less than a month after the new president's inauguration. Though it has occasionally been construed as an adversary of social conservatism, the Tea Party in fact has brought to a new set of issues the same kind of morally grounded analysis, drawing on the American founding, that social conservatism has brought to social issues in recent decades.

Does this base-driven pressure for polarization, coming from both left and right, discredit the polls cited by Americans Elect showing 40 percent of voters open to a new party? Not at all. Such polls reflect intense anti-incumbent sentiment rooted in dissatisfaction with today's sterile politics and ineffectual government.

But an election so polarized as to begin looking a bit like Armageddon is unlikely to be the one that ushers in any Third Way.

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