A new political center can make America great again - opinion

A year since January 6, the government is dysfunctional and the electoral system absurd. Violence hangs in the air, and talk of a breakup of the union is not a joke.

 PRO-TRUMP PROTESTERS storm the US Capitol during clashes with police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by Congress in Washington on January 6, 2021. (photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)
PRO-TRUMP PROTESTERS storm the US Capitol during clashes with police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by Congress in Washington on January 6, 2021.
(photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)

A year after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, America finds itself in the kind of trouble that should concern the entire world.

Both of its big parties are at war with the country’s majority on critical issues. Government is dysfunctional and the electoral system absurd. Violence hangs in the air, and talk of a breakup of the union is not a joke.

This is the country that underpinned the post-WWII order that has, for all its faults, kept the peace in Europe and spread prosperity around the globe. This is the country that Israel needs as a guarantor of its existence.

So really, although few think anything can be done, something really should be done. But what? I have an idea.

Let’s start by examining the state of the union as we begin election year 2022.

A mob of supporters of then-US President Donald Trump climb through a window they broke as they storm the US Capitol Building in Washington, US, January 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS/FILE PHOTO)A mob of supporters of then-US President Donald Trump climb through a window they broke as they storm the US Capitol Building in Washington, US, January 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS/FILE PHOTO)

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans offer the American majority what every survey show it wants: reasonable gun control and healthcare guarantees, social justice without cancel culture, effective but also efficient government, taxation that leans on the extravagantly wealthy, reliance on science and reason, fair elections and the like.

The domination by these two out-of-touch parties has reflected the idea that they reflect two common mindsets, not just in America but of humankind as whole: one lionizes tradition and fears change; the other takes risks for dreams of better things. It has usually held true, but in America at the moment, it just no longer does.

Here’s the true political landscape:

On the far Left, progressives agitate more for cultural war than social economic justice. They delight at the professional destruction of people deemed guilty if accused, “cancellations” and the hounding from college campuses of violators of their orthodoxy. In the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from offense they choose the latter. They militate for extreme affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities and women and view group affiliation as vastly more important than individual expression. According to Pew, the “Progressive Left” is about 7% of registered voters and mostly white; but the real number is higher due to backing from blacks and other minorities and amounts to probably a sixth of the electorate.

Moving Rightward, we have perhaps one-third who are classic liberals. They would deny no one health insurance, but they recoil from identity politics as the opposite of liberalism. They want fairness, integration and free speech, not open borders or “defunding” the police. They don’t view riots as a letting off of steam or consider meritocracy to be systemic racism. Polls show about a third of Democrat supporters fear progressives and disdain is mutual.

The picture on the Right is inverse in the proportion of moderates to radicals.

Moderate Republicans are also well-meaning (Exhibit A: Romneycare) but are very concerned about limiting government and balancing budgets (even though Republican administrations rarely achieve either).

But this group is only about half the size of the populist Right, which (overlapping strongly with the Evangelicals) commands at least a third of the electorate and thus a majority of the right. Its supporters still fervently back Donald Trump, generally insist the 2020 election was stolen, would happily steal an election of their own and applaud vote suppression. They revel in disruption of the world order (even when America is harmed), are quite often racist and despise liberal “elites.”

Many have a legitimate grievance, in my view: they’re livid at the past four decades’ decimation of the American working class by globalization (jobs moving to Mexico and Asia) and digital disruption (jobs vanishing altogether). It can be argued that they’ve been betrayed by the educated classes which survived this period fine.

Few will dispute that these four groups exist, but the more surprising thing – and the seed of a possible big bang – is that the two in the middle are closer to each other than to their rivals in the same party. They do not agree on everything but could agree on quite a lot.

‘Never Trump’ conservatives are more horrified by the authoritarian tendencies of what has now been revealed to be the majority of the Right than they are by Joe Biden’s spending (despite inflation, which is a worry). The true liberals are more horrified by the illiberalism of the progressive Left than they are by the cantankerousness of erudite conservative pundits like Bill Kristol.

Therefore, it’s fair to say there are effectively actually three streams of political thought in the United States today: the progressive Left at about a sixth, the populist Right with perhaps a third, and a center that is larger than both with potentially half the electorate.

The resistance to third parties is of course extremely strong. It’s based on the logic that if purists abandon the mother ship – the Greens from the mainstream Left or Ross Perot from the mainstream right – they hand victory to the other side by splitting the vote in what is essentially a winner-take all district system. You get Bill Clinton instead of George Bush the elder; you get Bush junior instead of Al Gore.

But that logic evaporates if the splitters come from both sides to form a genuine centrist bloc. Such a big bang would be hard to engineer, requiring courage and political skill. For the first to join, it would entail huge risk.

But the incentives are there.

On the Republican side, the situation is a nightmare since the current party is a menace. The moderate conservatives know this, do not belong there and cannot really stay; they will be removed in party primaries, if they even run.

The Democratic side is, at present, less malignant, because the moderate liberals are still the majority: Biden is president, not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York). But that majority diminishes daily since the progressives have youth on their side.

Furthermore, the Democrats are the victims in the current setup; they need a big bang. That’s because the US political system gives equal weight in the all-powerful Senate to all 50 states, so it advantages small rural ones. A vote in reliably “red” Wyoming has 70 times more Senate impact than one in “blue” California. In the Electoral College, for the presidency, the multiple is a still-preposterous almost four.

There are enough rural, conservative states to ensure that a minority of the country – a third or even a quarter – can dominate the Senate and thus block vital legislation and appoint bible-thumping justices (who right now seem about to overturn abortion rights and block gun control, clashing with public opinion on both counts). Studies show that by 2040, the most conservative one-third of Americans will control two-thirds of the Senate. And to win the presidency cleanly, the Democrats need to win the actual vote by huge margins (Biden’s 4.4% advantage very nearly yielded an Electoral College tie which would have probably reappointed Trump).

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ genius for gerrymandering and penchant for cheating (an upgrade of the Democratic machine of the mid-20th century, to be fair) has created an almost equally unfair advantage for them in the House of Representatives. This coming November, they may well retake the Senate and perhaps also the House. A return to the White House of the toxic Trump is far from impossible in 2024.

It seems nothing can be done to change this landscape, because about half the states are solidly red, which blocks constitutional change.

All this is a recipe for very ugly trouble. The Brookings Institution found that the counties that voted for Biden in 2020 equal 70% of the country’s economy and studies show the blue states are more economically productive across the board. How long will they put up with minority rule by what often looks and quacks like a White Supremacist goon squad?

That way lies widespread civil disobedience, growing violence and an eventual effort at secession by the northeast and the west.

Is there really no way out of this just because “America has a two-party system?”

The road to a big bang would be difficult. But at the end of it, if the liberals swap their alliance with the progressives for an alliance with moderate conservatives, that reshuffles the cards. Such an alliance could sweep the large majority of US states, agree on policies desired by most Americans, and renew faith in politics and democracy.

Just as in Israel, which needs to partition the land and redefine relations with the haredim, the change would be difficult and require political realignments that seem crazy. But also as in Israel, inaction in America is leading to calamity.

The writer led AP in the Middle East as well as Europe/Africa, was political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association. He is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him on Twitter and www.twitter.com/perry_dan