In today’s world of polarized politics played out on social media, the question keeps popping up in my head; Is there such a thing as a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative? It’s a serious question because it is in this middle ground that experienced, competent legislators and government executives are prepared for the work of governing.
Drawing on insights from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, far right anti-government libertarian movements, such as tea partiers and friends, do not organize or prepare their members to handle the responsibilities of governing. They represent them only as private individuals with private needs who want them to be protected against interference from government. It’s a from of individualism not above all else, but in place of all else.
It’s a shrewd observation that helps explain some of today’s legislative chaos. Moderates, both left and right, seek mutually acceptable resolution of issues, but extreme libertarians aren’t interested because it can never be anything but surrender to the authority of government. Trying to negotiate with them is useless. The same has been said of far left wingers, but there’s an enormous difference. For the most part, they believe in the role of government to enhance quality of life, secure economic opportunity, and protect civil rights. The government is not the enemy. But like the far right, those on the far left appear tone deaf to the practical demands of governing. They give the impression that being passionately for a social good is enough to make it happen if only they can get rid of the opposition. Their passionate naïveté makes it difficult, but not impossible, to negotiate with them. They do, after all, understand the value of those who know how to govern.
Governing is made harder by speaker Paul Ryan who is as close to an extreme libertarian as a legislative leader could be, making it nearly impossible to negotiate in good faith with him, and the freedom caucus chaired by Mark Meadows of North Carolina that keeps him in check. My gut level guess is that minority leader Pelosi, schooled and experienced in the politics of thirty years ago, struggles to understand their reasoning, and has lost her effectiveness. On the senate side, majority leader McConnell has either finally revealed his true colors as an extreme libertarian, or is so intent on holding onto power that he will prostrate himself to whatever direction he thinks the wind is blowing, with John Cronyn as his weather vane. Does Schumer understand what’s going on? Maybe. I hope so.
Meanwhile, in the White House sits the most unprepared, illiterate, self aggrandizing, amoral person who has ever occupied the Oval Office. He has no known political ideology, but does have a predator’s sense of where his base is. As long as he can keep them as his base, he’ll adopt the appearance of being ideologically aligned. The time will come when one will have no more use for the other, but no one knows when. When it does, the base will not see the light and become progressive Democrats. They will remain, in Arendt’s terms, “the mob” with the motto “Proud to be Deplorable.”
Where does this leave the nation? I don’t know. We need two parties governing from the center. Years ago, Ralph Nader, campaigning from the far left, declared that there wasn’t any difference between Republicans and Democrats. What we needed, he said, were strong third parties willing to make a difference. He was partly wrong and partly right. The two parties of Nader’s day were quite different, but they were center-right and center-left, and that wasn’t enough for him. Vigorous third party efforts often bring new ideas to the fore, and that’s a good thing. But, as with Arendt’s mob, they are ill prepared for governing and frequently twist elections in directions contrary to their agendas.
So, where from here? I wish I knew. I’m waiting for the midterms, hoping they reveal promising tea leaves.