Understanding ‘the death of the political middle’

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The observation has been common among D.C. pundits for a long while, but the talk seems to have picked up since Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) announced her retirement: moderation is going out of style on Capitol Hill. Juan Williams makes the case in his column this week:

The Founding Fathers designed Congress to represent the will of the majority of Americans.

Yet, even as more Americans identify themselves as independents – not Democrats or Republicans – there is a painfully sharp decline in moderate and independent voices in both houses of Congress. It is also true that everywhere but Capitol Hill more people are moving away from conservative or liberal labels in favor of calling themselves moderates.

The death of the political middle is the defining shift taking place in American politics today…. [E]ven as more citizens go to the middle, the politicians are marching to the political extremes.

Well, sort of. “Politicians” is a pretty generic term – what matters is which politicians are moving to the extreme.

To his credit, Williams’ column got more specific, noting recent political science data documenting the fact that while Democratic caucuses “have remained largely unchanged in their moderate, left-of-center leanings” for the last half-century, “the Republican caucuses in Congress have become dramatically more conservative.”

But the Fox News commentator couldn’t leave well-enough alone. “Progressives often complain about a ‘false equivalency’ – when the blame for the polarization in politics is distributed equally to both parties. In their view, progressives do not exert nearly as much pressure on the Democrats to be liberal as conservatives do to make the GOP more right wing. There is some truth to that…. However, the Left has tried to do the same thing and would be doing it more often if they could.”

Perhaps. If the most ambitious, uncompromising liberal activists could push the Democratic Party much further to the left, they almost certainly would. But therein lies the point: this hasn’t happened. While the GOP’s far-right base has dragged the Republican Party to an extreme unseen in modern times, the Democratic mainstream hasn’t budged much at all from its center-left foundation.

It’s precisely why the “false equivalency” complaint about political polarization has merit – because the complaint happens to be true. This Politico cartoon on the subject was excellent.

Don’t put a pox on both houses when only one deserves it.

If you (or Juan Williams) missed this recent segment, I’d highly recommend it.

Understanding 'the death of the political middle'

Updated