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Bob Burnett

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There Is No Political Middle Ground

Posted: 09/30/11 12:19 PM ET

The defining characteristic of the 112th Congress has been extreme Republican partisanship, an unprecedented willingness to hold the Federal government hostage until conservative demands are satisfied. The GOP tactic has disrupted the U.S. and demolished the myth of a middle ground in American politics.

There are four explanations for the Republican rejection of bipartisanship. The first is political. Republican legislators have been indoctrinated to believe that if they do not toe the conservative Party line, radical "Tea Party" activists will campaign against them in the next election. As a consequence, many Republican politicians are afraid to compromise lest they lose office.

Cultural differences provide a second explanation for Republican political rigidity. Since the 2000 election, the United States has become more polarized and the differences between Blue and Red areas have increased. Even in a Blue state, such as California, gerrymandering has created congressional districts that are deeply Red. Across the U.S., public sentiment differs dramatically in Blue and Red districts. Blue and Red districts have widely different information silos. Blues listen to Rachel Maddow and Reds hang on every word Rush Limbaugh utters. As a consequence of these cultural differences there are two radically different perceptions of "reality." Republicans don't appreciate a Democratic policy position because they never hear it discussed seriously; the conventional "wisdom" in Red districts is dramatically different from that in Blue districts. There is a huge communication failure.

Republican dogmatism reinforces their negative worldview. UC Professor George Lakoff's classic Moral Politics postulates that Democrats see the world in positive terms -- the "nurturing parent" model -- and value collaboration and empathy. In contrast Republicans adhere to the "strict father" worldview, where life is dangerous and citizens must take a defensive stance and organize hierarchically. Republicans regard compromise as a sign of weakness; they consider President Obama a wimp who doesn't understand how perilous the U.S. situation is.

Finally, in recent years Democrats and Republicans have developed conflicting perspectives on core American values. On April 13, President Obama gave a succinct summary of historic American values: "we are all connected," "each one of us deserves some basic measure of security," "We believe... that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves," [we value] "fairness... shared responsibility and shared sacrifice." Most Republicans no longer believe Democracy is based upon empathy; they no longer accept the axiom, "we are all connected." As a consequence, Republicans do not share the Founders' vision of the basic American social compact. In their "patriotism" each of us stands alone.

Despite increasing levels of partisanship, Washington pundits continue to believe in a hallowed political middle ground inhabited by "independents"and high-minded politicians from both Parties. Many advocate bipartisanship as a way of attracting this mythical group. But recent polling evidence indicates this is a fantasy: Americans are either Democrats or Republicans or turned off.

A recent Pew Research Survey divided registered voters into three groups: "mostly Republican" 25 percent, "mostly Independent" 35 percent, and "mostly Democratic" 40 percent -- there's another group of possible voters,10 percent of the eligible population, who Pew labels as "bystanders" because they don't vote. However, the mostly Independent group are actually Democrats and Republicans who, for whatever reason, eschew Party labels. Ten percent are "Libertarians" who vote Republican. Eleven percent are "disaffected." And the remaining 14 percent Pew calls "Post-Moderns," "moderates but liberal on social issues," who vote Democratic.

An earlier Pew Poll studied Independents in more depth and divided them into five distinct groups (100 percent). "The Disengaged (17 percent of independent voters), which is disproportionately comprised of women, young people and minorities... are essentially political bystanders." Two groups favor Democrats: "Shadow Democrats" 21 percent and "Doubting Democrats" 20 percent. Two groups favor Republicans "Shadow Republicans" 26 percent and "Disaffecteds" 16 percent.

What the Pew polls make clear is that people who call themselves Independents often do so because they are disgusted by the politicians in their native Party, or by Washington in general, but their underlying values and worldview are either Democratic or Republican. Republican leaning Independents may not like House Speaker John Boehner but they prefer the Republican stance. Democratic leaning Independents may be dissatisfied with President Obama but they prefer the Democratic stance.

In his memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama said, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America, there's the United States of America." Obama believes this and therefore has tried to invoke bipartisanship and govern by principled negotiation. It hasn't worked because it doesn't reflect political reality.

In contemporary America there is no room for bipartisanship. We are solidly divided between Democrats and Republican who exist in their own, quite different, realities. Regardless of what Washington pundits say, there is no political middle ground; if you are not a Democrat or a Republican then you are turned off -- you believe the political process has failed, America has failed.

The bottom line is clear. Obama has to abandon his instinct for bipartisanship and principled negotiation and acknowledge his position as leader of the Democratic Party. The President has to be partisan.