“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” – George Washington
Back in AP US History I distinctly remember the day we read this quote in class. Washington was offering a stern warning to the country because of its movement towards a two-party political system. He was fearful that such a division of ideologies would lead to stagnation, constant fighting and potentially a form of despotism in America’s newly formed political system.
One only needs to tune in briefly to any form of political commentary to be reminded of the state of our political discourse. Demagoguery and mudslinging may be operating principles of today’s political system; but, there is a certain tone to the current campaign that inspires revulsion. Moderate politicians seem nowhere to be found. Indeed, this impression may be a combination of a true shift in political viewpoints as well as the effect sensationalism of headline-grabbing radicals has on hijacking our political conversations.
It is easy to forget the two radical movements that rocked our political system in 2009 and 2010, The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Today I want to take a step back and look at the roots of these movements and specifically, how their arrivals changed our political discourse and the role of “moderates” in our system.
The Tea Party gained relevance in 2009 and 2010 as a conservative, anti-government backlash to the more progressive political agenda of President Obama. The mission statement of the Tea Party declares it is “… a grassroots movement that calls awareness to any issues which challenges the security, sovereignty, or domestic tranquility of our beloved nation, the United States of America.”[i] By the time the 2010 midterm elections came around, the Republican Party establishment had co-opted many of the platforms and enthusiasm brought to relevance by the Tea Party. Relative embrace of the Tea Party by the Republican establishment, most pundits would agree, pushed the Republican Party as a whole further to the conservative right.
One year later protests began in Liberty Square of New York City. Self-identified as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, activists sought to “[fight] back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process…”[ii] Many members of the Democratic Party used enthusiasm from this movement to champion the benevolent role of the government in keeping greed and crony capitalism in check. This embrace of a more “hands-on” government solidified the Democratic Party’s position further along the liberal left.
In order to cater to the swelling supporters for each of these movements, the platforms of each major party shifted away from the political center. It is not necessarily true that a majority of each political party’s constituents agreed with these changing ideas, but rather that the people who cheered on these repositionings were the most vocal, enthusiastic, and likely to vote in the upcoming elections. In other words, the changes of platforms may have been largely electorally motivated.
This consolidation of the ideas within each political party to the further left and right of center was a prelude to a destructive showdown. OWS and The Tea Party have diametrically opposed beliefs, so what would happen when their principles were absorbed by the two major parties?
In 2013, in the House of Representatives, 94 percent of the representatives voted along party lines 80 or more percent of the time. In other words, that year only 6 percent of representatives voted for a piece of legislation that was primarily supported by the opposing party.[iii] Daniel Feller, a professor of U.S. congressional history noted, “you’d have to go back to the 1850s to find a period of congressional dysfunction like the one we’re in today.”[iv] Typically moderates are essential to preventing dysfunction through compromise. While there are no doubt many more relevant factors than I have discussed here, there are strong indications that OWS and The Tea Party had a substantive effect on pushing the two main political parties apart and silencing some of the moderate political voices essential to a functioning democratic system.
It is difficult to conclusively connect the dots from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders back to the radical political movements of 2009 and 2010. Indeed, there are many factors at play that have given rise to the most politically divergent set of candidates in recent decades. Wherever their origin, though, these candidates have succeeded in refocusing the national political debate to ideas less aligned with the average American voter. While reexamining “new” ideas is essential to a vibrant democracy, moderates have suffered. There has been a concerted effort to label “moderates” as valueless, spineless, etc. as they lack the same fervor as ideologues. The net result is the voices of moderation are suppressed and the calls of more extreme ideologies are elevated.
Frustration with ingrained political beliefs is at an all-time high: nearly 50% of Americans today identify as independents. As political candidates represent more radical beliefs, these voters are left out – leaving a massive hole in the middle of the political spectrum. Looking towards the Republican side of the current presidential election, Governor John Kasich has been able to capitalize on some of this frustration. At least one of his roadblocks, though, is that his voice has lacked amplification from any grassroots movements. This dynamic highlights the main issue with our political discourse. To be radical or sensational is to be heard. To be moderate or pragmatic is to be ignored. Such a paradigm is perpetuated across all forms of media; newspapers, social media and television included.
We need another Tea Party.
Moderates need a way to amplify their voices and gain attention in our political discourse. The next reactionary movement in this country needs to be one of pragmatism in response to radicalism. With national conventions less than two months away, time is running short.
Here is where the 2016 election cycle presents an opportunity. Washington believed in the American spirit and citizens’ capacity for rational thought and reasoning. Whether compelled by a refusal to accept far-right or far-left policies, moderate discourse has the chance to reclaim its position in American political thought. The support is there, as shown by the 50% of this country that considers itself independent. If a leader is able to support the change from dogmatism to rationality, stubbornness to compromise and radicalism to moderation, the possibility for positive change in our political environment is there for taking.
Conason, Joe. How Clinton Balanced the Budget. February 2011 <http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/02/11/how_clinton_balanced_the_budget_108853.html>.
Neuman, Scott. Congress Really is as Bad as You Think Scholars Say. 2011. <http://www.npr.org/2011/12/27/144319863/congress-really-is-as-bad-as-you-think-scholars-say>.
Newport, Frank. Congress Approval Holding Steady at 15%. February 2013 <http://www.gallup.com/poll/160625/congress-approval-holding-steady.aspx>.
Occupy Wall Street. About. 2011. <http://occupywallst.org/about/>.
Schoen, Douglas E. Occupy Wall Street Has Seized Control of This Year’s Political Debate. 28 April 2012. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/28/occupy-wall-street-has-seized-control-of-this-year-s-political-debate.html>.
Tea Party. About Us. 2013. <http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/>.
Travis, Shannon. Angles win Nevada GOP Senate Primary. 9 June 2010 <http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/06/08/nevada.primary/index.html>.
Washington Post. The US Congress Votes Database. 30 April 2013 <http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/113/house/members/>.