A few weeks ago I was talking to my nephew about his English exam, in which he was required to demonstrate classic rhetorical techniques. One of these is “antithesis” – using two opposite ideas to draw a contrast. And that got me thinking about the idea of antithesis, opposites, in modern American politics.
So here’s a riddle: in today’s America, what is the opposite of a liberal Democrat?
Most people would say “a conservative Republican.” But I would like to argue something different: that the biggest divide in America is not between competing political philosophies on the left and right – between conservatism and progressivism – but between the interests of activists on each end of the political spectrum against the members of their own party who are closer to the middle. Those are the opposites. And that matters: it’s actually a massive problem, one that each party is desperately trying to manage.
There’s some strong sociological research to back this up. A fascinating recent report called “Hidden Tribes” based on interviews with 8000 Americans finds that Americans fall into seven segments based on their underlying attitudes and beliefs. On the left are “progressive activists.” On the right, “devoted conservatives.” These segments are marked not only by how far right or left their views are, but how engaged they are: they’re not only the most ideological, but also the loudest.
But – and here’s the key point – those segments combined make up only 14% of America; everyone else falls somewhere in between, both on the left-right spectrum and in terms of various degrees of political engagement. This 86% of Americans comprises what the researchers call the “exhausted majority.” And as the authors say (I’ve added emphasis):
“Members of the Exhausted Majority are considerably more ideologically flexible than members of other groups. While members of the “wing” groups (on both the left and the right) tend to hold strong and consistent views across a range of political issues, those in the Exhausted Majority tend to deviate significantly in their views from issue to issue. Furthermore, the wing groups, which often dominate the national conversation, are in fact in considerable isolation in their views on certain topics. For instance, 82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but 80 percent also view political correctness as an issue. By contrast, only 30 percent of Progressive Activists believe political correctness is a problem.”
So we’ve got relatively small segments of the active and zealous on each end, and then a vast, more flexible set of segments in the middle. The agenda of both ends should seemingly be to defeat the views and the candidates of the other party. In practice, their main agenda is to defeat the views and the candidates of their own party which they view as too squishy.
Look no further than the affiliates of the progressive left’s current media star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The founder of the group that helped elect her (who is her current Chief of Staff) sees the biggest obstacle in the country as moderate Democrats who don’t agree with them on Medicare-for-All or Free College for All. The group promises war within the Democratic Party to go after these apostates. And the Congresswoman’s spokesman delivered the McCarthy-esque line that “Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.” Michael Kazin, editor of the left-wing magazine Dissent, admitted that the target of these kinds of progressive groups has always been more moderate elements of their own party, not conservatives: “The radical left’s major influence in American history is to push liberals, progressives, to the left.”
None of this is new to Republicans who have lived through their own internal party fulminations. Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan state, points out that their moderate witch hunt began in the 1950s and 1960s, as Republicans “were self-consciously moving the party rightward and getting rid of the people in the party who were ‘Republicans in Name Only’ or who did not share that that viewpoint.”
By the late 2000s, as I’ve shown previously, it was hard for elected Republicans to be anything but highly conservative, as well as highly uniform in their views. The process then ran away with itself…the TEA Party explosion of 2010 became the Republican party implosion of 2012 and beyond, as incited activists raised the bar for what constituted a real conservative to insane heights and drummed more mainstream Republicans out of primaries (remember the non-witch of Delaware and Richard Mourdock?) and elected offices. The defeat of the #2 ranking House Republican Eric Cantor in 2014 encapsulated the whole story: a mainstream conservative Republican whose only blasphemy was supporting a single bill on immigration reform.
Since 2016, this has all culminated in the ultimate shibboleth for activist republicans becoming slavish adherence to Donald Trump (to the dismay of many “traditional conservatives”), accompanied by the casual destruction of never-Trumpers and defeat of even mildly hesitant Republicans.
All of which brings us back to antithesis.
The target of the activist segments is within their own party. Their perceived opposition – their opposite – are those that share a party label but who have different views. And the problem this creates for all of us is not only that it drives our deepening political polarization, not only that it drives greater disaffection from those in the middle, but also for Democrats specifically that voters come to believe in a false equivalency in the degree of extremism on both ends. As I’ve pointed out previously, there is no equivalency, and the perception of one plays right into Donald Trump’s hands.
The positive view here is that if anything close to 5 out of 6 of us are indeed in the “exhausted majority,” there is a way out of the broken pile of matchsticks that our politics has become. The slightly less positive: there’s a lot of work to do to find our way out, and a high chance of catching fire along the way. On the Republican side, there’s more reason for dismay…the activist segment has captured the leadership of the party, and the road forward is rocky at best. The fact that Donald Trump might well win a second term makes matters even more intractable.
But for Democrats, hard though it may be, there is greater opportunity here. It will require leadership: to keep the tent big enough to be a haven for the exhausted; to set direction for the agenda and the message rather than outsourcing those functions to the loudest voices on Twitter; and to keep focused on external goals rather than internal food fights, or worse, endless descents into the minutia of identity politics that implicate virtually everyone as bigots, intended or not. Kudos to Nancy Pelosi for generally succeeding in these regards in the first two months of her renewed tenure as Speaker, and for Party leaders trying to keep Presidential candidates focused on Trump, not each other.
If Democrats can seize this opportunity, they will extend their reach and significantly up their chances of winning in 2020 and beyond. If they can’t, well…we’ll get the opposite.