Where's The Political Center?

With the 1996 election year just around the corner, the big political question in the United States today is: who is in the center? Or even if there is one.Political columnist David Broder recently noted with relief that the two leading contenders for the U.S. presidential office are both "centrist politicians" who naturally incline to the middle of the road.Despite the angry, polarized debate in Congress, he wrote, the centrist impulse -- embodied in President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole -- remains alive and well in the United States. But Broder did not touch on the deeper, socio-economic changes which threaten the center of the country's vaunted stability -- the middle class.In spite of the moderate instincts of the two leading presidential candidates, the middle class's diminishing numbers and undiminished sense of anxiety are forcing the major parties into more radically opposed positions, undermining the political center and re-introducing class struggle in U.S. politics for the first time since the 1930s."There is no more central subject in politics today," Stanley Greenberg, President Bill Clinton's chief pollster, said earlier this month. "No party will be successful without addressing it successfully."He was referring to the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States and the economic and psychological pressures that gap is exerting on the dwindling number of people in-between."The middle class is scared, and it should be," said Lester Thurow, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The combination of technological shifts, competition from workers overseas, tight credit, declining union membership, and corporate "downsizing" has produced a situation where household income over the past five years has dropped for all groups except the richest. It compounds a 20-year trend of declining real wages for most families.It has also made wealth distribution in the United States the most skewed of all industrialized countries -- a fact that strikes at the heart of the country's egalitarian identity. "These are uncharted waters for American democracy," noted Thurow in a recent New York Times essay titled, "How Much Inequality Can a Democracy Take?"The rich-poor gap is clearly behind the growing political chasm between rightwing Republicans who believe the welfare state should be dismantled and Democrats who believe it should not.While signs of such a polarization have been evident since the Republicans swept Congressional elections last year, they have increased in recent weeks. The prolonged budget impasse between President Bill Clinton and the rightwing Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has widened the divide.So have the retirement announcements by a seemingly endless stream of "moderate" Republican and Democratic senators whose average tenure in Washington reaches back a generation.The departure of these veteran "deal-makers," who often bridged the gap between the parties, marks the greatest senatorial exodus since 1896 and poses serious questions about the future of compromise in the legislative process, according to some analysts."The ones we're losing were the kind of super-glue that held the House and Senate together," notes Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.While generally conservative, the Republican retirees, including Nancy Kassebaum, Mark Hatfield, and Alan Simpson, hail from the Dwight Eisenhower wing of the party -- firm believers in basic welfare entitlements, civil rights, free trade, and international engagement.They are not much different from departing Democrats like Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, and David Pryor, who were generally more pro-business and pro-defense than their party leaders.Their departure leaves a gaping hole at the centre of U.S. politics -- a hole which Broder and other founts of conventional wisdom say Clinton and Dole will be competing to fill in the coming months.But it remains unclear whether there still is a center, and, if there is, of what it consists.Conservative author Michael Lind says that the center itself has become irreparably divided by class.On the one hand is the "moderate middle" consisting of those leaving the Senate and the neo-liberal Democrats, mostly suburban socially liberal professionals and managers who want to cut government spending. These forces largely reflect the views of the departing senators, Lind says.On the other hand, according to Lind, is the "radical center" -- consisting largely of white, blue-collar workers whose political tastes are highly volatile, ranging from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. Socially conservative, "they are liberal, even radical in matters of economics."These forces, more numerous than the "moderate middle," have been hardest hit by the socio-economic changes of the last 25 years and are willing to listen to more radical voices in both parties, Lind says.They flock to Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan who blast free trade, internationalism and Wall Street as much as big government. But, in local races, they also back liberal Democrats who go after corporate welfare and preach the values of unionism.In short, the "radical center," increasingly the victims of a global economy which no longer values their work, is no longer at the center of the political spectrum. As their plight continues to deteriorate, they are looking for answers well outside the cozy consensus that has ruled Washington for almost 50 years.Their anger mirrors the middle class's decline and the growing gap between rich and poor, and their numbers automatically make them a serious political force in 1996. Failure to address their plight, according to Lind, could produce a "new 'SouAmerican' politics of outsiders versus insiders...[that] may replace the traditional American left-right spectrum."Or, as Clinton's Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it recently: "A democracy cannot long endure without a strong middle class."

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