First a truism: politicians who manage to occupy the centre ground usually win.
This isn’t so much a matter of political philosophy as one of political arithmetic.
For it’s generally believed that about a quarter of all voters are right of centre, another quarter left of centre, and hence twice as many find themselves in the middle as in either extreme.
And now why this truism is meaningless. It would be useful only if the political centre were fixed in eternity, which would also imbue both Left and Right with easily definable boundaries.
But that’s not the case. Rather than being an immovable granite rock, the centre ground is quicksand being pushed and shifted by the mighty winds of the zeitgeist.
This line of thought has been stimulated by the on-going mid-term elections in the US, a country I called home for 15 years, from 1973 to 1988. But, politically speaking, it’s not the same country now.
Then too candidates were desperate to occupy the centre ground. In that sense nothing has changed, and it probably never will. But the quicksand has noticeably shifted leftwards since then.
Back in the 1970s the Democratic Party had a well-defined geographical habitat — it was dominant in the South. The appeal was tribal: it had been the party of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Mason-Dixon Line no longer existed as a political divide, but it continued to run through the hearts of Southerners. They could no longer fire cannon salvos at the Yankees, but they could still thumb their noses at them.
Loyalty to the Democratic Party was part of that unhygienic gesture. Yet that didn’t presuppose loyalty to the Yankee Democratic Party, one going back to the 18th century Tammany Hall machine in New York. That was the party of the New Deal, increasingly moving towards what Americans call liberalism and what is in reality socialism.
That wasn’t the Southern way in the 1970s. The region was inclined towards conservatism and so was its Democratic Party. Hence a large swathe of the Democratic Party in general was rather conservative, certainly as much so as just about any political group in today’s America.
Yet the zeitgeist of the post-Enlightenment West blows steadily in the opposite direction. Just as the North ended up winning the Civil War, so was the Northern part of the Democratic Party steadily winning the war of attrition against the Southerners.
When that tendency became plain for all to see, conservative Democrats began to change allegiance. Since my first 10 years in America were spent in Texas, an example from that state springs to mind first, that of a Democratic politician becoming a Republican because his party moved so far to the left that it left him behind.
John Connally (d. 1993) started out as a typical conservative Democrat. JFK, on the other hand, was a New Dealer. Yet in 1971 he appointed Connally to a cabinet post in his administration, this despite the divergence in their politics. A similar inclusivity is hard to imagine today, isn’t it?
Connally then left the Kennedy administration to become the governor of Texas. In fact, he sat next to Kennedy during that ill-fated ride through Dallas and was wounded by one of the bullets. Before he passed out Connally remembered seeing a chunk of Kennedy’s brain landing on his trousers.
Now our imagination has failed to fathom that political convergence, it’s about to receive another blow. For 10 years later Nixon appointed the Democrat Connally to an even higher cabinet post. Nixon was seen as a conservative Republican, but he evidently didn’t think he and Connally were politically incompatible.
This Connally proved by setting up in 1972 a campaigning organisation called Democrats for Nixon. Put your imagination into overdrive and try to picture a high-ranking Democrat of today starting a campaign under the slogan of Democrats for Trump (or DeSantis, if you’d rather). I can’t, hard as I try.
That such a situation is unfathomable is testimony to the shifting sands of American politics. Zeitgeist blew across the landscape and pushed the quicksand of centre ground leftwards, where it mixed with that leftmost 25 per cent, including what in my day was called the lunatic fringe. As a result, that segment grew in size and influence, not only political but also cultural and, if you will, existential.
The right-leaning 25 per cent may still be there, but the general tendency is to keep them in the margins. This explains the unexpectedly modest gains of the Republican Party in the mid-term elections.
Traditionally, the party in power hardly ever wins in mid-term. Its performance never meets the exalted expectations of the electorate because it never can: the daily grind of political rough-and-tumble defeats ideals hands down every time.
In dispute is only the margin of the ruling party’s defeat, and this depends on all the usual factors, the state of the economy and the personality of the president being the major ones. Immediately below that tier of concerns are such social factors as crime, education, healthcare, immigration and so on.
It’s on the basis of all such variables that most commentators predicted a crushing defeat of the Democrats. After all, the economy is in the doldrums, with inflation running at a 40-year high, the deficit and national debt are leaving the stratosphere for the moon, illegal immigration is bursting through the threadbare border controls, the crime rate is soaring.
And as to the personality of the president, well, you know. Joe Biden, never the sharpest chisel in the toolbox at his best, is showing worrying signs of a cognitive decline as progressive as his policies.
The poor chap confuses his wife with his sister, which raises interesting questions about the intimatemost life in that family. He doesn’t remember what his son died of. He repeatedly meanders on stage trying and failing to find the exit. He confuses countries and states, seldom remembering which is which. He indulges in pratfalls, evoking Chevy Chase’s opening routine in the old SNL. And his son Hunter was allegedly mixed up in financial scandals so dirty that Joe too was sullied head to toe.
Considering all that, it was easy to predict a wipe-out for the Democrats in both chambers. Yet nothing like that has happened. As I write this, the Republicans are on course to reclaim the House by a smaller margin than expected, whereas the Senate race is still on a knife-edge.
This falls far short of the confident and logical predictions. So much so that Joe Biden has declared his intention to run again, a decision likely to turn him from a lame duck to a dead one. One would think that any Republican candidate will wipe the floor with Biden, but it’s hard to be sure any longer.
For nothing in politics is as illogical as it seems. The logic is always there, one just has to be able to discern it.
When the Democratic Party moved leftwards, it took the mainstream of the political centre with it. The zeitgeist is blowing in one direction only, right to left, and that’s where the quicksand of the centre ground is shifting.
Today’s centrist is a 1970s liberal rapidly becoming a 1960s radical. This doesn’t bode well for America and, by ricochet, all of us.
Such is the ineluctable logic of today’s politics, not only in the US but throughout the West. And this is the kind of quicksand that can sweep us all into the sea of troubles.