The Hole in the Center of American Politics


Republican politicians who do not support Donald Trump have made radically different choices over the past five years.

Some, like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have tempered their criticism of the 45th president — sometimes opposing him, while accommodating him to others in service of their partisan goals.

A small coterie of others, like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have vigorously opposed Trump — in her case, voting to impeach him and helping lead the House inquiry into his conduct on Jan. 6, 2021. Thursday evening, Cheney will once again take center stage as the Jan. 6 panel holds what is expected to be its last prime-time hearing of July.

As Peter Baker writes, Cheney and his allies are betting that the judgment of history will eventually justify their choices, while insisting that his motives are not political.

“I believe it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally,” Cheney told Baker in an interview, “and possibly the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

So far, however, the accommodationists have prevailed. McConnell has worked closely with the Trump White House to provide the federal justice system more than 200 conservative judgescarrying out a decades-long project that culminated in the hard-right transformation of the Supreme Court and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Republicans are also poised to retake the House in November, and possibly the Senate, though official party bodies have rallied behind Trump and, in the case of the Republican National Committee, helped pay his legal bills. considerable.

Yet Trump’s consolidation of the Republican Party’s base — the MAGA hardliners who wouldn’t blanch if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, proverbially speaking — has left a void at the center of American politics that the two parties scrambled to fill .

Democrats swept through the mid to mid-terms of 2018, retaking the House with a focus on kitchen table issues like health care, while preparing to take full control of Congress two years later. Republicans have retaliated this year by seizing on inflation and various cultural issues in an attempt to portray Democrats as out of the mainstream.

One of the reasons for all this political volatility: college-educated suburban voters bounced from election to election, making this bloc a kind of no-man’s-land between two entrenched camps.

Vacuums like this always attract political entrepreneurs, and there has been a blossoming of activity aimed at these voters. On Politics has covered much of this new energy over the past few months, from the emergence of new parties to independent ballot initiatives backed by mega-donors to cash flow super PACs having fun in the Republican primaries.

In previous years, groups with names like “No Labels” and “Third Way” have claimed the mantle of political centrism. But partisan voters have generally scoffed at the efforts, suspecting them to be Trojan horses for corporate donors. Other centrist initiatives, such as the anti-Communist and pro-Labour group Americans for Democratic Action, lost influence as their historic moment passed.

David Greenberg, a historian of American politics at Rutgers University, said there were “a lot of people unhappy with the direction the Democratic Party seems to be going,” as well as well-researched and better-organized Republicans never Trump. .

But he noted that structural obstacles like the Electoral College had made it difficult to establish third parties and other groups, even when voters appeared supportive of their arguments.

On occasion, charismatic figures like Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Bull Moose Party”, attempted to galvanize the middle of the electorate and run against both poles. . More often, however, attempts to break the grip of Democrats and Republicans on the system have failed for lack of strong leaders.

Greenberg also marveled at the irony that so many Americans now feel the two major parties have been pressured into appealing only to their respective bases.

“If you really go back in time, our two-party system itself was thought to be a bulwark against extremism,” he said – as opposed to multi-party systems in places like Weimar in Germany that allowed radical groups to take power without ever commanding a majority. voters.

One of the most interesting centrist experiments takes place in Missouri, where a former Republican senator, John Danforth, supports an independent Senate candidate, John Wood. A former aide to Danforth, Wood was most recently a prosecutor on the Jan. 6 panel.

In an interview, Danforth said his goal was to provide an alternative to two major political parties that he says have each gone wrong in their own way.

“The problem isn’t just in Trump or the Republican Party,” Danforth said, though he said he was troubled that Republicans were attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and the court cases ratifying the results.

“But on the other hand,” he added, “we have identity politics, we have cancel culture. We have a whole kind of portrayal of America as oppressors and victims. And that’s not healthy either.

“The purpose of this campaign is this: we need to heal the country,” Danforth said.

An accomplished Republican insider, Danforth grew up in elite St. Louis circles and attended Princeton University and Yale Law School, where he also earned a master’s degree in theology. After a stint in corporate law, he was elected state attorney general, then became a senator on the eve of the slow Republican takeover of Missouri politics.

At a time when politicians tend to find more success railing against Washington’s elites, Danforth, 85, is an unabashed defender of old ways of doing business. He was particularly offended by the capture of the Capitol, an event that led him to break with Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri politician he mentored and helped into office in 2018.

Support Hawley, Danforth told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the freshman lawmaker greeted the Capitol crowd with a raised fist on Jan. 6, it was “the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life.”

And while Danforth professed his optimism about Wood’s chances, which most Missouri political analysts say are weak, he said he felt compelled to try.

“We are not a corrupt system,” he said. “We are not a system that people should attack, either in the Capitol building or through this political view of taking up arms. That’s why I do this. I have to do it. You know, I just feel like I have to.

— Blake

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