The Center is Not Holding: The Makings of a Political Cataclysm?

Lou Brien  |

The political center is not holding.

Ask John Boehner…he would tell you the same. And Jim Webb agrees as well; when he dropped out of the Democratic Presidential nomination race, he told the National Press Club in Washington that “Our political candidates are being pulled to the extremes. They are increasingly out of step with the people they are supposed to serve.”

Think so?

According to a recent polling of likely Republican Iowa voters, 32% are prepared to cast a vote for Dr. Ben Carson, and another 18% plan to back “the Donald”. The mainstream politicos have to share the other half of vote. Bernie Sanders makes no secret that he does not come from middle of the road, but nonetheless, he regularly draws as many as 20,000 supporters to his rallies, four or five times the peak crowds that show up for Hillary Clinton.

Who is pulling who to the extremes?

The Far Left and Right Agree on One Thing: The Other Side is Wrong    

Despite the distance between the edges of the political spectrum, the view across the empty middle allows both sides to come to the same conclusion. To both liberals and conservatives, it has become more and more clear that those on the other side of the political spectrum are most likely wrong. Their rationale is simple: given that my view is correct, yours must be wrong.

The political chasm was not always there. “In 1950, the American Political Science Association published a major report on the state of America’s two-party system,” explained Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker magazine last week. “The authors worried that the public had little idea what to expect when they voted for a Democrat or a Republican, because each party was a mish-mash of interests with little ideological consistency. What was needed in American politics were parties with more ‘internal cohesion,’ so that when one party was in control, the average voter would understand generally where it stood on the major issues. 

In addition, the party out of power needed to present sharp differences. The report said, ‘The fundamental requirement of accountability is a two-party system in which the opposition party acts as the critic of the party in power, developing, defining, and presenting the policy alternatives that are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.” The report had many recommendations about improving politics in America, but the basic headline was one that seems amusing today: America wasn’t polarized enough. This graph from the Pew Research Center documents how the two parties, which were once both coalitions of liberals and conservatives, gradually began to pull apart until they were perfectly sorted: all liberal are now in the Democratic Party and all conservatives are in the Republican Party. There is no longer any middle.” 

Even though it seems as though the US is always in campaign season, the election cycle is only in its opening scene; the vote won’t happen for another 376 days. So we have to wait to see what happens next in the politics of the extreme here in this country.

The Migrant Crisis Polarizes Europe

But the US is not the only place where the political center is hollowing out. In Europe, it is playing out in real time. Europe is feeling the centrifugal force of people fleeing the middle and it is showing up in national elections and electoral trends throughout the continent.

I believe that political centrism after World War II was one of the factors that enabled Europe to become more unified. Yes, since the end of the war there were dictatorships in Spain and Portugal as well as a military junta in Greece. The Baader Meinhof Group in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy were unsettling examples of violent political statements, and the iron curtain was a scar across the continent. But as long as the center held, there was room for compromise on things such as the Schengen Agreement, the common currency, and of course the European Union itself. But the current flood of immigrants into Europe may be too much for the center to bear. To be clear there is nothing definitive; but smoke is evident even if the fire has yet to be seen.

Over the weekend, Poland elected the Law and Justice Party (PiS) into an outright majority position in parliament. PiS is Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant. A party elder, the former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was said to have gained political capital when, during the campaign, he said that the refugees were bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites.” Clearly the PiS is not interested in falling in line with Germany’s refugee example.

One week ago, the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) won the biggest share of the vote in Switzerland’s national parliamentary election. “Immigration was the central topic for voters amid a rush of asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe,” reports Reuters. SVP leader Toni Brunner told Swiss television that, “The vote was clear, the people are worried about mass migration to Europe.” The election result “cemented the SVP’s position as the dominant force in Swiss politics. It won 29.4% of the vote, according to the final tally from Swiss broadcaster SRF, up from 26.6% in the 2011 vote and far exceeding expectations. It was the best performance by a party in at least a century. This translated into 11 extra seats in Switzerland’s lower house of parliament to bring its tally to 65, the highest for any party since the chamber’s membership rose to 200 in 1963,” says Reuters.

France’s far right National Front is, at its core, anti-immigrant. Marine Le Pen has moved away from the incendiary rhetoric of her father, the founder of the party, but not necessarily his ideas. Thus, the migrant crisis is likely to be a boon for the National Front. Le Pen is expected to dominate the December election in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais; polls show her support there at forty percent.

Angela Merkel has been the German Chancellor for ten years. She says the refugee situation is “the biggest task I’ve faced in my life as chancellor. I know it’s a hard situation but I will not give up.” That may not end up being her choice. There are 10,000 asylum seekers coming to Germany each day.

It is more than just the fringe element that is concerned about the numbers of people that have already come and those still lining up at the border; these two graphics from the New York Times help to tell the story behind the systemic strain.

“For a leader normally adored by her followers, a recent regional party conference in the east German town of Schkeuditz was a shock for Chancellor Angela Merkel,” says the Financial Times. “Speakers from her conservative Christian Democratic Union condemned her ‘open door’ refugee policy in the harshest terms. ‘You don’t know who is coming,’ said one delegate in front of 1,000 local party faithful. ‘You don’t know how many are coming. You don’t know how many are already here.’ Some even challenged Ms. Merkel’s leadership, with one delegate declaring: ‘More and more citizens say to me, this is no longer my chancellor. Others applauded when she pledged to stick with her ‘refugees welcome’ approach…But the lasting image from Schkeuditz was a placard reading: ‘Stop the refugee chaos—depose Merkel.’” Similar stories of social and political shifts are being told in Sweden and Finland, Budapest and Prague and on the frontiers of Slovenia and Austria.

The political center is being evacuated in Europe – as it has been in the US. Solutions formed on the outer edge do not easily reach across the political chasm and that can be problematic.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

- Excerpt from The Second Coming, by W.B. Yeats


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