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"Vital Centrism"--A Commentary by Prof. Peter Schuck


(This essay originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of American Lawyer.)

Vital Centrism

A "militant moderate" debunks misperceptions surrounding the American "culture war," and offers tactics to promote a cease-fire.

By Peter H. Schuck, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law

As George W. Bush prepares for his second term, the chattering class (of which I am a tenured member) is still debating and digesting the larger meanings of the 2004 elections. Much of this conversation is ill informed, tendentious, and nakedly partisan. As a political independent and centrist (in a forthcoming book, I call myself a "militant moderate"), I like to think that I have no ax to grind other than a passionate love for my country. Skeptical of all simplifying ideologies, I hold that most things are more complicated than they seem, especially in politics. Here, then, are some brief observations about the kind of polity that America is--and what we might become.

Absurdities

Some explanations of recent events are just silly. One example is the claim that Bush's reelection marks a triumph of the kind of fundamentalist religious culture that H.L. Mencken mocked in the 1920s--then, with good reason. Writer Christopher Hitchens exaggerates only slightly when he says that many who today scorn the religiously zealous imagine "a God-bothering, pulpit-pounding Armageddon-artist, enslaved by ancient texts and prophecies and committed to theocratic rule." Even the brilliant Garry Wills, who should know better, contends that religious conservatives have declared war on the Enlightenment, science, and democracy.

In fact, American society has liberalized even the most fundamentalist religions over time. Uncompromising traditionalists are vastly outnumbered by adherents who have managed to make their peace with the modern world. Christian groups are no different. According to Andrew Kohut and associates, "one-third of committed evangelicals and 41 percent of committed Catholics believe that legal abortions should be available to women in at least some circumstances other than rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and well over half of the members of these two groups support the distribution of birth control information in public schools. Thirty-three percent of committed evangelicals, and nearly as high a percentage of Mormons, believe that government regulation is necessary for the public good; 28 percent of both groups think that the federal government does a better job than it is often given credit for." Citing a new Pew Foundation survey of American religions, The Economist reports that substantial majorities in all religious groups agree that the disadvantaged need government help "to obtain their rightful place in America" even if it means higher taxes, and also support stricter environmental rules and a high priority to fighting HIV/AIDS abroad. Liberal secularists should not mimic Falwell-like bigots by ignoring the diversity among and within religious groups lumped together as the "religious right" and by promoting religious stereotypes that would rightly offend them if applied to racial or gender groups.

Hypocrisies

The postelection analyses reveal (surprise!) that hypocrisy is nonpartisan. Many liberals who boast their broad tolerance and generosity of spirit, it turns out, are neither tolerant nor generous in characterizing their opponents' views on guns, partial-birth abortion, Iraq, the international criminal court, the Kyoto treaty, the military, school vouchers, and a host of other issues. Not taking these views seriously makes it easy for liberals to dismiss them as stupid, bigoted, unsophisticated, xenophobic, and selfish. They act as if genuine debate on the merits would only serve to dignify the political equivalent of flat-Earthism.

Conservatives, for their part, often abandon principles for tactical reasons. Staunch states-rights advocates support federal tort reform legislation. So-called strict constructionists lionize U.S. Supreme Court justices who propagate a radical jurisprudence that has overturned scores of federal statutes based on a strained reading of the commerce clause. Fiscal conservatives lobby for massive special interest subsidies and tax cuts that produce record deficits. Proponents of limited government often favor further state intrusion into our private lives and civil liberties. Worshipers of our sacred Constitution propose to amend it at the drop of a hat to advance some crusade-of-the-moment.

Realities

An interesting feature of postelection analysis is what it does not discuss. Many pundits have glossed over some of the most politically salient facts of American life. This ostrich-like evasion, of course, is not confined to one party, position, time, or place. Still, Democrats' recent losses suggest that they are particularly prone to it.

The most notorious "newly discovered" fact is Americans' religiosity, a faith in faith unique among postindustrial democracies. Some 85 percent of Americans believe in heaven, 65 percent in the devil, and 75 percent in angels that affect human affairs. (Scoffing cosmopolitans should acknowledge that some of their own pet pieties are also unempirical, and that unprovable religious convictions may still be socially vital.) A Pew Foundation survey in 2001 found 25 percent of adult Internet users had gone online to find religious and spiritual material--more than the number who had visited gambling sites, participated in online auctions, or traded stocks online, and a sharp increase from only a year earlier. An abiding mystery, then, is how Democratic politicians who should be in the business of knowing their market could have failed to exploit this unmistakable religiosity. Their inattention is especially stunning because Bill Clinton, their only two-term president since FDR, was (in Professor Marci Hamilton's words) "the most religiously activist president in history."

The hype about a "transformative" election has also obscured the remarkable continuity of public opinion over time. In The Rational Public, political scientists Ben Page and Robert Shapiro show that opinion has changed little in the last 50 years on a broad range of controversial policy issues. Many pundits seized on the 22 percent of exiting voters who cited "moral values" as their top concern, yet this response to a very ambiguous question was similar to those in earlier elections--including those Clinton won. Another sign of continuity: Only three states changed colors in 2004, with the split of the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, and governorships hardly shifting. The election was a tremor, not an earthquake.

Some political facts do change. Majority views of racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, for example, have grown far more positive, and attitudes toward gays and lesbians have gone from widespread hostility to broad support for equal treatment with remarkable speed. Indeed, civil unions and same-sex marriage became mainstream political issues only five years ago, yet 62 percent of voters now support one of these reforms (at least where courts do not force it on them). These shifts reveal another reality: Political centrism dominates public attitudes. Although the GOP has steadily gained on Democrats in registration for several decades (this election merely continued the trend), exit polls found 29 percent self-identifying as moderates. For all the talk about the campaign's divisiveness and the mapping of blue states massed on the coasts with red states occupying the vast in-between, voters' moderation persists. Political scientist Morris Fiorina's new book, Culture War?, contrasts their centrism with the polarization among political and media elites.

Another reality: The vast majority of Americans are now middle-class; an even larger share (some 90 percent) think that they are. Most live outside cities, invest in the stock market, own their homes, drive two cars, go to restaurants, have little use for labor unions, and seldom interact with the poor. Although economic vulnerability still shadows the middle class, they do not respond well to crude appeals for soak-the-rich tax proposals, Naderite populism, or other class-based animosities. Few are rich--but most still hope to be.

Tragedies

The election highlighted two facts that imperil our political health. First, blacks remain isolated on the Democratic party's left wing. While Bush gained more support among Latinos, Jews, other minority groups, and even blacks (by 2 percent), blacks remain the most reliably loyal Democrat group; the party takes that bloc for granted with largely symbolic gestures such as affirmative action and showcasing black celebrities (some, like Al Sharpton, hurt their cause). Yet the party opposes important reforms like school choice that most blacks think would truly help them. They would increase their political influence by forcing politicians to court them as swing voters who demand a high price for their support. Barack Obama's landslide victory for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois shows that exceptionally attractive black candidates can escape this isolation, winning independent and Republican voters. Alas, Obama is just that: exceptional.

A second perilous isolation is that of opinion leaders in the media and the academy. More than 80 percent of national journalists are far more liberal than the electorate, while Fox, Drudge, and conservative talk radio are militantly conservative. Their bellicose cross fire tends to drown out quieter centrist voices. The liberal-conservative ratio on faculties, especially in law, humanities, and social sciences, is now at least 7:1 and likely to keep rising, according to a recent study. Leading foundations also tend to be quite liberal. This overwhelming orthodoxy among opinion leaders who preach incessantly about the virtues of diversity is of course hypocritical. More important, it betrays the public that relies on them for the balanced, rigorous information and analysis that shape civic discourse.

Strategies

All Americans--both empowered conservatives and disempowered liberals--have a vital stake in the revival of a Democratic party that can seriously contest, and often win, national elections. As journalist Jonathan Rauch recently argued, our national well-being requires a government in which each party holds enough power to keep its opponents honest. Historically, as political scientist David Mayhew shows, divided government has been good government.

As the defeated Democrats go back to the drawing boards and the Republicans savor their victory, what kinds of changes can an independent moderate suggest to nourish the competitive national politics we so desperately need? Here are a few modest proposals.

1. Reduce unwarranted incumbent advantages. Long cycles of one-party rule are bad for the polity. Triumphalist Republicans forget at their peril that the shoe was recently on the other foot. In 1994 the Democrats had controlled Congress for almost all of the preceding 40 years, during which Republicans seemed (and felt) irrelevant except when they could win the White House. An important reason for these overlong cycles is that state legislatures control the decennial redistricting of House seats and use their power largely to protect incumbents. They do their job effectively; in this year's election, only seven incumbents were denied reelection, and in only 37 of the 435 contests were the losers even arguably close. Again, this gerrymandering is a game that both parties play when they can. No panacea exists, but we could make redistricting less partisan, as Iowa has. We also need to analyze how well the new campaign finance law worked. Many observers (including me) predicted that it would restrict challengers' access to funds, limit parties' political advertising, and otherwise weaken them. The early evidence suggests that in fact the parties became stronger, raising a great deal of money, much of it in small donations. Still, the law's longer-term effects on competition and free speech remain to be studied.

2. Reform election law. Given the recent experiences with voting equipment failures, disputed voting rules, legal challenges, and near-deadlock in the electoral college, Congress should revisit the election law it enacted after the 2000 debacle, legislate more inter-state uniformity in federal elections, and provide more funds for implementation. These elections are too important to be left to the largely unreviewable discretion of local boards staffed by patronage appointees who are ill equipped to do the nation's vital work. Even without constitutional amendment, we can also reform some of the Electoral College's worst features--for example, ensuring that third-party candidates with little support cannot throw the election into the House, and that faithless electors cannot flout the people's choice.

3. Advance more attractive candidates and policies. The Democrats were terminally foolish to run a Massachusetts liberal (arguably the most liberal in the Senate) for president for no better reason than that he boasted a gallant war record. John Kerry has demonstrated few coalition-building skills in his long Senate career, and gave independent voters few reasons to support him. He did as well as he did because even a weak Democratic candidate can win 48 percent of the vote when his opponent runs on an unpopular war and an uncertain economy.

Moderate candidates are hobbled by the parties' nominating processes, which empower party activists: teachers, unionists, and racial minorities for Democrats; pro-gun groups, small-business owners, and religious conservatives for the GOP. These people do not truly represent the parties' actual and potential voters in the general election. The militantly antiwar, Michael Moore?populist supporters of Howard Dean and Ralph Nader pulled Kerry so far left during the primaries that his centrist moves as nominee opened him to "flip-flop" ridicule. Both parties, but especially the Democrats, need to make their selection processes more centrist-friendly.

Democrats can also win votes by attacking unfair, growth-stifling policies. The regressive payroll tax is ripe for reform, and income tax simplification could appeal to the middle class. Social Security can be fixed with moderate changes such as raising both the retirement age and the taxable income ceiling. Health insurance changes linking consumer choice, cost-sharing, and coverage for catastrophic expenses can gain support from the middle class and employers whose competitiveness is threatened by the current system.

4. It's national security, stupid! Democrats will never regain power until voters again believe that the party will energetically use American power--multilaterally if possible, unilaterally if necessary--to protect vital national interests and complete difficult, unpopular missions once undertaken. Rightly or wrongly, a majority of voters trusted Bush to do this while doubting Kerry's conviction and tenacity. And 89 percent of the half who thought (rightly or wrongly) that the Iraq war has increased our security voted for Bush, as did most of those who saw terrorism as a top issue. People vote as they do for many reasons, of course, but terrorism and Iraq were more decisive than the same-sex marriage ban (approved in solidly blue Oregon and Michigan), evangelical voters (whose share rose only slightly), or most other "moral" or wedge issues that many Democrats want to believe defeated Kerry.

Wishful thinking is no strategy for winning the next election.


Peter H. Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin professor at Yale Law School, and author of Diversity in America (Harvard University Press, 2003).