Accomplices in Killing the Center

If you want to see vivid proof of the collapse of the center in American politics you don’t have to look any further than the ballots the small percentage of us filled out for the election that took place yesterday. Traces of this destruction were not to be found in the names of the candidates, however. Because it was a primary election and voters indicated beforehand whether they wanted to fill out a Republican or Democratic ballot, many of the names were familiar from a party affiliation while some weren’t. But there was no evidence in any of the names that any candidate was lacking in the ability to deal with the complexities of real life.

Not so in other parts of the ballot. It was in making that choice of Republican or Democrat that one was also directed to vote Yes or No on a particular slate of propositions that the parties were each putting forth for the approval or disapproval of their voters.

The returns from these are shocking in what they reveal. Each of the propositions on the Democratic slate passed by margins typically of 97% to 3%. Some of the Republican margins of approval were less stark, but only by comparison.   Here, too, one found returns on the order of 96% to 4%, making the occasional 87%-13% look like a nail-biter. Of all the propositions proffered to Democrats for their approval, none received less than 92% support. There was even a 99% support for one, a number that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a ballot that didn’t have Saddam Hussein’s name listed as a candidate. Republican opposition never rose above 35% and that only once. Most opposition was in the single digits.

What’s immediately evident here is the skill with which the drafters of these propositions know their audience and can manipulate the responses they want to receive from voters.

What’s marginally less evident—but not by much—is that on both sides this is a perfect example of political positions being crafted to avoid nuance, subtlety and complexity, to avoid voters thinking about their responses and cement in them a surety of purpose and righteousness. I know this is the case from the Republican propositions I saw; the numbers of approval for the Democrat ones indicate that for those it was even more so, which is something I couldn’t have imagined while I stood at the voting machine, reading the Republican offerings, dumbfounded. Each had the vacuous clarity of “Should bad people be punished when they do bad things?” or “Should the state keep people safe?” I’ve never been as egregiously insulted in a voting booth.

The real issues weren’t these of course; they referred to other more controversial and complex issues that were nevertheless phrased in a way to get the response that would fire up the base, as they say.   There were 12 propositions on the Democrat side and 11 on the Republican side, and it’s hard to believe that you’d ever get such near unanimity on a dozen contentious issues from a diverse population if the purpose of the ballot were not to throw complexity overboard and play to everyone’s basest instincts. It is clear that neither party wants voters thinking deeply about any of the issues. That is to say they want no room on the political spectrum for anything less than unanimity, a desire fitting only if you want people to believe all their political opponents are against things like keeping people safe.

On both the right and the left, the purpose was to create polarization and to preclude compromise. This is not how democracy works. This is how totalitarians manipulate their way into power.

(A version of this column appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Thursday, March 8, 2018)

3 thoughts on “Accomplices in Killing the Center

  1. This is a well-written essay by a good friend. Other than “Amen” I am at pains to figure out what to add. Earlier I editorialized in favor of partisanship– but partisanship is not the same as ideology. Political parties are–or are supposed to be–vote building organizations which hold together coalitions of people who often disagree on peripheral issues but agree on fundamentals. And I wish ALL of us could agree on the fundamental that we are committed to country 1ast, party second, and both are important. Dr. Smith and I identify with different parties but we agree that parties exist to represent our best interests, and the ability of parties to fight, logroll, compromise, electioneer, haggle, and otherwise do what they need to do to achieve solutions–solutions which will inevitably require at least a few votes from the other party–are better than vapid ideological slogans that serve only to mobilize “the base” and solicit campaign contributions.
    Keep writing, my friend.
    -Michael A. Smith, Emporia State University

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