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Wednesday, March 03, 2010  

Looking Neither to the Right nor the Left

Yglesias is right to point out that Tom Tancredo is exactly the kind of person who could find some room in the electorate for a meaningful third party run. Not coincidentally, he has a pretty strong rationale for doing so should he wish to.

Constant establishment whining to the contrary, it is not the extremes that dominate lawmaking in Washington but the center, broadly defined. More to the point, there are some pretty wide swathes of public policy where the differences between the leadership of the two parties are very small. Free trade is one of them. Democrats are obligated to talk about CEOs who are "shipping our jobs overseas" and to promise labor and environmental side agreements, but no serious Democratic presidential contender in years has actually opposed the major trade deals of recent decades. And while Republicans are always, always itching to cut taxes on high-income families, Democrats haven't exactly made much noise about making the tax code significantly more progressive. Adding a new 50% bracket for super-high incomes seems like the kind of idea that would at least be bandied about as we figure out how to fund our priorities. In the Senate, however, 59 Democrats can't even agree to a modest surcharge to fund health care. Both parties by and large support American hegemony/empire, though Republicans in particular feel the need to exaggerate the minor differences in worldview between the parties because they consider it advantageous. And of course, both parties are in the main in favor of normalizing the status of most undocumented immigrants and not especially keen to punish employers for hiring them.

What these areas of consensus have in common is the strong support of economic elites and much less consistent support among ordinary voters. Thanks to the deliberate (and necessary) exaggeration of such differences as do exist, and the tendency of parties to bundle these positions with others--notably abortion and gay rights--that divide the nation more cleanly, and institutions that just plain don't work at this point, we experience a high degree of polarization despite what has to be, by the standards of most big democracies, a pretty stunning degree of uniformity across major segments of national policy.

In principle, then, there ought to be considerable oxygen available to a labor-peace coalition on the left and/or an anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade coalition on the right. We saw a feeble, if devastating gesture in that direction in 2000, with Nader and Buchanan trying to fill those roles when the two parties looked their most indistinguishable and we did not yet know that George W. Bush would throw the imperial long ball. Similar attempts in 2004 and 2008 went nowhere, though it's interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Ron Paul chosen to run in the general election.

Since it is a virtual certainty that the 2012 election will pit Barack Obama and his record against a Republican with views almost indistinguishable from George Bush's or John McCain's on these issues, there will likewise be an argument for a Tancredo campaign. Liberals rightly despise Tancredo for his rhetoric, but it's hard to deny that he represents a view that is not otherwise very well represented by the major parties. Our plurality electoral system makes these endeavors inherently very risky, and it's comparatively easy to rally the marginalized against a greater/gayer/more fundamentalist enemy, so I don't consider it likely. But if the GOP takes control of the House, and the economy continues to recover at a glacial pace, these consensus issues are the likeliest ones to get worked on and thus to provoke populist frustration. Stay tuned.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:15 PM
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