How political centrism died in America

From the age of 18 until 42, I was a member of the Republican Party. As a young and idealistic political columnist at Morehouse College, I realized that like many southern blacks, that my political ideals were rather center-right. Meaning, at the time, I supported lower taxes, the goal of balanced state and federal budgets, a strong military, and the concept that gay marriage was against the will of God.

FB_IMG_1542549476262(My first solo editorial, Morehouse Maroon Tiger newspaper, circa ’91)

What I did not foresee was that my still developing political ideology would be greatly impacted by my prodigious grasp of American history in general, and the struggles of Black people in America, specifically. Meaning, that the more I read from the works of renowned historians like Drs. Carter G. Woodson, John Henrik Clarke and Leonard Jeffries, and sociologists like Dr. W.E.B Dubois, I realized a few early lessons.

Namely, I knew by my sophomore year how true conservatism was anathema to the black struggle for equality; whether conservatives were members of the Democratic Party, the Dixiecrats, or Republicans per the so-called “Southern Strategy” that saw a mass exodus of conservatives to the Republican Party after the same felt betrayed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, it was clear that those who wanted black folks to remain situated in a permanent second class caste were not my ideological mates.

Thus, my youthful idealism, where I felt it necessary to have intelligent black people in the GOP to articulate “why” and “how” certain policies would benefit–or serve to the detriment–of blacks writ large.

By the time I was a student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, my columns in the Independent Florida Alligator newspaper gave me a measure of campus wide notoriety, but it also was the source of, let’s just say “nervous” chatter from White College Republicans (WCR) who would make comments like:

WCR: “Hey, Hobbs, I read that article of yours about lynching in Florida. That was so long ago; I thought you were one of us  buddy?”

Me: “Nah, that isn’t as long ago as you think, as the last recording lynching was in Mobile, Alabama in 1981–just fifteen or so years ago. Plus, you did listen to Professor Ken Nunn as he detailed how the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentencing constructs disproportionately impact Black people? Oh, and I assume that you were paying attention in seminar when we learned that Claude Neal, the 19-year-old Black man who was brutally lynched by a white mob back in 1934 over in Marianna, Florida, was a cousin of two of our law school classmates?”

WCR: “Uh, no I didn’t know that…”

Me: “Yeah, you should listen and read more–there is much for you to learn from me and us!”

FB_IMG_1542549596632(My most polarizing editorial during my law school days at the University of Florida)

Yep, it was then that I knew that holding elected office as a more moderate Republican, one who by age 24 was much more interested in addressing the root causes of crime, economic equality, and discrimination according to gender, religion and sexual orientation, was not in the cards for me. But at the time, I could still look at national Republican leaders like Senator Bob Dole and Secretary Jack Kemp, or Democrats like Sen. Robert Byrd, one who had morphed from a member of the Ku Klux Klan to become a champion of equality, and former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neil, and realize that both parties had members who understood the concept of reaching across the aisle to foment bipartisan consensus where they could.

download (27)(Close friends: Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neil)

Nevermore…

Looking back, I realize that it was during my younger political pundit days that I witnessed the beginning of the end of centrism and bipartisanship.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush for the presidency, his early liberal inclinations to support universal health care and initial advocacy for gay rights, particularly in the military (which led to the compromised “Don’t Ask–Dont Tell” policy), were among several issues that led to a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

That Republican Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, ran on a “Contract with America” which promised fiscal austerity and conservative social policies from the federal government.

140926170715-gingrich-contract-with-america-story-top(House Speaker Gingrich circa ’94)

What Gingrich forced in ’94 that still reverberates to this very day was Republican fealty to the “Contract.” Those members who pledged such loyalty were rewarded with coveted committee chairmanships, while those who did not soon found themselves on the outside looking in as far as setting the legislative pace.

It is important to note that 24 years after the Republican “Contract,” the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is now making similar hard pushes for fealty among members, so much so that self-styled progressive Rep. Nancy Pelosi finds herself facing the possibility that she will not regain her former position as Speaker of the House due to the fact that many progressives believe that she is a “Republican-lite”–unlikely to push hard against the Trump administration.

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(Old vs. New: Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi and freshman Dem. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)

Another factor that led to the demise of the political center was the rise of conservative talk radio, particularly the Rush Limbaugh Show.

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Rush, far more than any conservative talk radio host, has consistently blasted Republicans who compromised with President Clinton and later, President Barack Obama, as “weak” and “feckless.” Since the mid-90s, other radio personalities like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin, and a host of Fox News personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson, have spewed similar “our way, or no way” rhetoric in what is now a 24-hour radio and TV news cycle.

What often goes unsaid is that Rush and his cronies have millions of devoted followers in what political scientists call “Middle America.” This euphemism really means “white America,” and if broken down further, means “white under-educated to uneducated America.”

Referring back to the “Southern Strategy,” the mass exodus of white Southern Democrats who voted for civil rights opposing Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, later turned out in droves to support Republican Richard Nixon in 1968. It is important to note that many of these same individuals had supported the center-left John Kennedy in the 1960 election, and many of the same would later support southern Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Now, Carter’s success was due,  in large part, to the stain of Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and his successor, Gerald Ford’s, inability to distance himself from not just those scandals, but America’s bitter defeat in Vietnam, which ended for the United States in 1975.

But when the economy fell into a deep recession under Carter, replete with gas shortages that led to frustratingly long lines at gas stations, not to mention the Iran hostage crisis from 1979, former Hollywood actor and California Governor Ronald Reagan was then able to  dominate the 1980 presidential race by attracting what would become known as “Reagan Democrats.” These Democrats, in large measure, were white, under-educated and uneducated voters whose primary concern was their individual abilities to put food on the table.

While Reagan and his presidential successor George Bush the Elder would dominate the 80s, once Bush led America during yet another mild recession, Bill Clinton was able to bring Reagan Democrats back into the fold for both of his races in the early and mid 90s.

Nota Bene–Since the early 1970s, the NORC General Social Surveys (GSS) have chronicled political demographic trends. Pertinent to this essay, among their findings include analyzing data with respect to which party under-educated and uneducated white voters best identify. Among their conclusions are:

*”Since 1970, the share of non-college-educated whites calling themselves ‘Democrats’ fell by approximately 20 points, from 60 percent to 40 percent. Most of the decline happened between 1970 and 1991. While identification with the Democratic Party decreased, identification with the Republican Party increased, reaching 40 percent in 1991.”

* “Since the early 1990s, working-class support for the Democrats has been stable at around 40 percent. During this period, the share identifying as independent has doubled from 12 to 25 percent. In contrast, the share of college-educated whites who identify as independents has remained stable at around 10 percent.”

In essence, since the 1970s, lower educated white voters identify best with the GOP, or, they register as independents and trend toward the GOP in state and national elections.

These trends are important when considering the rise of Donald Trump, including what many considered to be his shocking election in 2016. The many does not include yours truly, however, as I wrote a blog on Facebook about two weeks before election day in 2016 that maintained my belief that Trump could win.

What the demographic number crunchers cannot adequately detail, however, is the social biases of under-educated and uneducated white voters. Whether the economy is in steep decline or recovery, voters tend to cast ballots based upon their pocket-books, and/or their fears. Trump masterfully tapped into both among certain white voters by first portraying an American economy that was recovering by all objective indicia under Obama as still being in decline.  What Trump was then able to do from the extreme right, much as Democrat Bernie Sanders did from the extreme left, was to appeal to individual voters as to whether they believed that “their” personal economic prospects were getting better.

For Trump, those voters who lamented stagnant wages and lost buying power due to price increases, the next step, particularly for the under-educated and uneducated white voter, was to determine whether their economic prospects were not getting better because of “them.”

From time immemorial in Western Society, “them” or “they” is often the scapegoat opiate that dupes the unenlightened into believing that if “them” or “they” can be controlled, that happy days, economically, would be here again. Whether it was Adolf Hitler and German Nationalists insidiously blaming Jews and Zionism for the economic decline during Germany’s post World War I Weimar Republic, as shown here as Nazi police urge Germans to boycott Jewish owned businesses:

Berlin, NS-Boykott gegen j¸dische Gesch‰fteOr, whether it was Donald Trump vowing to “Build that wall” to prevent Mexicans from taking jobs from American workers, or his still yet to be fulfilled promises that the coal industry and manufacturing jobs lost under Bill Clinton’s NAFTA would “come roaring back” as he creates “better deals,” the reality is that the scapegoats simply are not the reason for economic decline among individual voters.

Trump, Washington, USA - 20 Aug 2018
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Alex Brandon/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9795541r) President Donald Trump speaks during an event to salute U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in the East Room of the White House in Washington Trump, Washington, USA – 20 Aug 2018

So, as far as the declining political center is concerned, what is clear is that many “Middle American” voters also fear the prospects that as certain industries become forever obsolete, that they lack the time or the funding to better themselves for new industries desperately in need of workers.  Which, I may add, could portend well in coming elections for progressive candidates that Fox News refers to as “Radical Leftists,” but ones who could speak directly to the individual financial needs of this demographic.

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When you look at the prominent progressive Democratic candidates who lost their races this cycle, including Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost a Senate race to Ted Cruz, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, and Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the Florida gubernatorial race to Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis, each championed the concept of greater job growth and career changing college courses for new areas, like alternative energy sources.

screen_shot_2018-10-12_at_10.28.54_pm(Abrams, Gillum, O’Rourke)

Again, with “how can I pay for classes or afford to go to school full-time and lose insurance benefits” in the back of many of these voters minds, the plans proposed by progressives could hit home in ways that the plan-less, status quo loving, mendacious about coal and manufacturing jobs returning Republicans simply cannot abide.

Indeed, cognizant that the voter gaps are not pronounced; Gillum, for example, lost in a typically “red” Florida  state-wide race by fewer than 35,000 votes–shows that his far left messaging appealed to Democratic voters much the same as the far right messaging from Governor-elect DeSantis appealed to Republicans.

download (28)(Gillum vs DeSantis debate)

This time last year, most Democrats predicted that the Florida  Democratic nominee would be Gwen Graham, a center-right former congresswoman who often sided with Republicans during her term in Washington. Most Republicans, figured that state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a center-right establishment sort, would be the Republican nominee.

The very facts that Graham and Putnam lost–and that Gillum and DeSantis emerged–simply proves the point that for the foreseeable future, the polar extremes in both parties are the winning tickets as the center, ostensibly, is dead.