The myth of the middle melts like Snowe

The polarization of American politics isn't bad manners. It's a good thing that reflects real political differences

Topics: 2012 Elections, Republican Party,

The myth of the middle melts like SnoweOlympia Snowe (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Right before renegade Republican Olympia Snowe cast the sole Republican vote against her party’s anti-birth control  bill, she announced her retirement from the Senate. The environment had gotten too polarized, she said, and close associates soon leaked her distaste for the party pressure to toe the line. The same week the New York Times carried a report about the electoral punishment of the handful of Republican state senators who had passed same sex marriage in New York. Beltway pundits predictably decried the decline of bipartisanship and the disappearance of the center from the political scene. Rockefellers gone, Lincoln Chaffee gone, with the latest resignation, it seemed fit to ask what had happened to the Snowes of yesteryear?

This is not a hard question. The answer is that they melted under the hot sun of the logical principle that holds you cannot say P and not-P at the same time. Gracious and lovely as the senator may have been, as the excellent Matt Yglesias described, her positions had “no logic behind them.” Liberals and conservatives don’t have a failure to communicate. They disagree. Critics play gotcha with the so-called centrists, asking how they can support same sex marriage and also give money to marriage opponent John Boehner. But that is such a cheap shot. The problem is not inconsistency on one position or another. There is no point at which a rational person can embrace both parties. For the two parties, roughly mapping onto liberal and conservative, it’s disagreement all the way down.

This is so, because, contrary to the wishful thinking of the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along crowd, political principles don’t just come from nowhere. They start at the most fundamental level: What counts as knowledge? What does it mean to be a person? Different kinds of people require and deserve different forms of government.

So when Olympia Snowe cast her vote for birth control, she wasn’t just voting for birth control. She was actually saying something about the superiority of knowledge from science over knowledge from religious revelation and that being a person involves some degree of control over one’s fate, that women are people, in that definition, and that therefore, women deserve a government that protects their right to control their fate. Exactly where in that chain of reasoning might she find common ground with the other senators in her party, who think that believers in revelation-based sexual regulation should decide the fates of female persons and use the government to achieve that end?

You Might Also Like

More to the point, if revelation were not good enough for information about birth control, why would it be useful in other contexts, like the value of prayer in school or the cutoff of poor women from Medicaid funds for abortion, all positions formally endorsed by the other members of her party?

Indeed, the commitment to evidence-based policies undercuts much more than just fealty to the church as a source of political positions. Almost without exception, for example, economic experts agree that unregulated financial practices led to the economic disaster of 2008, and that tax cuts and austerity measures are the worst prescriptions in a recession. Yet the Republicans persist in advancing the unregulated market, regressive taxation and spending cutbacks with all the zeal of the Council of Nicea announcing the nature of the trinity. Their concept of a person as a productive, competitive, selfish individualist is so powerful that it laps backward and creates its own knowledge base. How could someone who embraces empirical fact-finding support the Republicans’ budget, much less their position on same sex marriage?

The foundational nature of the divide is why Times columnist Joe Nocera is so wrong that a Santorum-driven GOP meltdown in November would finally drive the party back to the mythical center. The Republicans believe they know what counts as evidence and what it means to be a person. The politics of Republican personhood are the inevitable products of those beliefs, not incidental policy positions they picked up, Bill Clinton-fashion, because they thought they would help win elections.

None of this is new. In the mid-’50s, William Buckley and a group of like-minded intellectuals decided to create a conservative movement built on foundational beliefs about what counts as evidence and what it means to be a person. Far from being discouraged by their stunning rejection the first time out of the box in 1964, the conservatives didn’t decide to move to the center; they simply redoubled their efforts at conversion. The current state of party politics in America is a direct result of that movement. Indeed, conservatism is the most successful political movement of the last half-century.

Olympia Snowe isn’t a virtuous symbol of a lost Golden Age. She is more like a belated convert to reality. She spent years voting as if the bipartisan world of shared values had not come to an end. As she now stumbles out of her cave of unreality, she is not some heroic representative of a better world. She is more like Japanese soldier found in hiding out in the Philippines in 1974 who had spent decades resisting the fact that World War II was over.

Linda Hirshman is the author of “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution,”. Follow her on Twitter @LindaHirshman1

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>