Saturday, April 10, 2021

Quote of the Day (Nicholas Lemann, With a Premature Prediction About the Political Center)

“All over the country, Republicans and Democrats seem to be racing for the center….Wedge issues aren't cutting the way they used to. Democrats are now against high taxes, welfare, crime and big government. Republicans are for public education, environmentalism, Social Security, Medicare -- and, in most cases, legal abortion. The new consensus has been forged through the heavy (even by the standards of modern American politics) use of public-opinion polling. When candidates talk this fall, you can almost hear the sheaves of poll results rustling offstage—there's a uniform, finely honed set of positions and rhetorical flourishes that appears in race after race all over the country. Banning assault weapons is good. Public schools are good, but they have to be pulled culturally to the right through a return to discipline and basics. Protecting the environment is good. Protecting Social Security and Medicare is essential. H.M.O.'s are bad. Big tobacco companies are bad. Soft on crime is bad. Welfare is bad. The death penalty is good. Taxes are too high, but not egregiously so. Liberals are bad. Big government and bureaucracy are bad. Deficits are bad.”— Nicholas Lemann, “The New American Consensus: Government of, by and For the Comfortable,” The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 1, 1998

For all his noteworthy journalism and histories, Nicholas Lemann must, at least once or twice, cringe at some of his works. This article, I strongly suspect, would be among them.

The examples of “consensus” that he cites in this piece from nearly a quarter-century ago were true enough at the time, I suppose. But even then, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives was only a month and a half from impeaching Bill Clinton.

Moreover, a generation later, “wedge issues” seem back with a vengeance. Taxes, environmentalism (under the rubric of “climate change”), and assault weapons are as polarizing as ever. Supreme Court nomination hearings have devolved into proxy battles in the never-ending culture wars.

There’s talk about how Democrats are reluctant to collaborate on legislation with Republican colleagues they hold responsible for encouraging Donald Trump’s stolen-election myth that led to the January 6 assault on the Capitol. For their part, the GOP sees creeping socialism in virtually every initiative from the Biden Administration.

Back in 1963, political scientist James MacGregor Burns wrote of The Deadlock of Democracy. Conflicts between the two major parties and between the President and Congress have only worsened in the years since. But even at the time of Lemann’s analysis, they remained powerful.

The dilemma for our time is how to break this chronic gridlock. But the sources of conflict have now become so ingrained that in the meantime, commentators like Lemann would do well not to rush out premature assessments of a return to the political center.

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