Political vacuum at center – Jim Jeffords’ defection portends birth of new party
By Andrew Reding
Pacific News Service
Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ defection is about a lot more than control of the Senate.
It is the most recent sign of two extraordinarily significant trends in American politics. One is a sharp regional polarization. The other is growing dissatisfaction with the American two-party system.
Not since the years before the Civil War has this pair of trends been so prominent. Once again, the split is largely between north and south. And, though there is no sign of a new civil war, we appear to be headed for a period of political turmoil and stridency.
As in the 1850s, social issues are the prime causes of polarization. Back then it was slavery that divided the states. Now it is the role of religion in public life, as expressed in conflicts over abortion, school vouchers, and prayer in public schools.
The Republican Party once led the fight against slavery. Now it leads a different kind of moral crusade, to convert the United States into something of a Christian republic.
Nothing so divides a society as efforts to prescribe moral or religious norms, as the daily tragedy of the Middle East demonstrates. Western Europe, where religious passion is at an all-time low, is enjoying unprecedented peace and civility.
Not so the United States, where the rise of the religious right is upsetting the workings of the two-party system.
Here’s the dilemma. The religious right is a minority in the United States, and has little chance of becoming a majority in an increasingly multicultural nation. Yet it has gained effective control of the Republican Party, which holds power in the White House and – at least until Jeffords’ defection – in both houses of Congress.
All this splits the country geographically as well. Multicultural California, once seen as part of an emerging conservative sunbelt, has become a Democratic bastion. So have New England, the northern Midwest, and the prairie populist states – once the safest strongholds of Republicanism.
The more culturally homogeneous Southern and Rocky Mountain states have become bulwarks of the Republican Party, as has the southern Midwest.
The line dividing the two Americas is sharply drawn.
In this climate of polarization, Jeffords is unlikely to be the last to switch sides. He is certainly not the first – Senators Shelby of Alabama, Gramm of Texas, and Campbell of Colorado earlier switched to the Republican side.
Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is no doubt weighing his options, as is Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. It is simply becoming difficult if not untenable to survive as a Democrat in the south or as a Republican in the Pacific and northern states.
This has little to do with the traditional liberal-conservative divide. Barry Goldwater, long the epitome of American conservatism, decried the rise of the religious right in the Republican Party, saying it undermined individual freedoms.
A political void has opened between the two major parties, similar to the one that opened between the Democrats and the Whigs in the 1850s. Back then, that led to the birth of the Republican Party. History may be about to repeat itself.
It is significant that Jeffords did not switch parties. He became an independent. That, too, reflects a trend, particularly in the north. Vermont’s lone member of the House is an independent, as are the governors of Maine and Minnesota. Some 42 percent of New Englanders described themselves as independents in exit polls last November, comfortably outstripping Democrats and Republicans.
Absent reform in the two parties, independents will sooner or later coalesce into a new party offering what most independents want and no party now offers – fiscally conservative, liberal on social issues and personal freedoms. Such a party is sorely needed to fill the vacuum in the center formed by the polarization of American politics, and ease the threat to our nation’s tranquillity.
Pacific News Service associate editor Andrew Reding directs the Americas Project of the World Policy Institute, where he is senior fellow for hemispheric affairs.
Californians want clean energy
The Daily Planet received the following letter addressed to Gov. Gray Davis:
A recent Field Poll shows a sharp decline in support for your work. Californians do not want increased pollution as a consequence of the energy supply solution. We do not want state policy dictated by the fossil fuel energy suppliers.
We want clean, renewable energy that will guarantee future freedom from the out-of-state oil and gas suppliers who have wreaked havoc on the state’s economy as well as to the budgets of individual ratepayers.
Please save your future and ours by moving expeditiously to support development of solar, wind, bioenergy and conservation. These sources are both the cheapest and the quickest solution. Governor Jerry Brown and State Architect Sim van der Ryn showed the way.
C. M. Woodcock
Height limits drives up auto use
I was amused by Martha Nicoloff’s claim that her initiative to limit new housing would mean “a more pleasant environment for students to study here.” (May 25)
The students do not have time to enjoy the environment because they cannot find housing in Berkeley. Many of them have no choice but to drive long distances, congesting Berkeley’s streets and spewing greenhouse gasses into the air.
The smart-growth movement has spread the idea that, in order to reduce sprawl and automobile dependency, we should build infill housing to create compact transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. I would call Nicoloff’s plan “the dumb-growth initiative.”
Promote policies of conservation
The Berkeley Daily Planet received this letter addressed to Senator Boxer:
This note is about the energy plan of the brave new administration: 1,000 new power plants including nuclear suggested. I’m not at all convinced the administration is deeply concerned about the seriousness of environmental problems; nuclear-industry problems remain legendary and numerous.
Promoting consumerism rather than conservatism seems, as usual, the central force of the administration.
Please fight to instill some reality into their dangerous Neanderthal fantasies.