The American body politic is in a state of … shock in the days before real voting commences in the presidential primaries.
From left, right and center, top to bottom, our limbs and joints are in spasm. The civic worry level is off the charts. I’ve covered elections since 1982 and have never seen anything like it.
The long view says when actual votes are cast, regular order will return, historical patterns will prevail and the center will hold. Perhaps. But right now there’s an extraordinary degree of fretting verging on panic.
The conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is worried about Bernie Sanders and, a bit less, Donald Trump, saying, “[I]n a campaign that has already busted normal American political conventions, the possibility of an extreme election outcome is no longer unthinkable.”
Liberal Tom Friedman, writing on the op-ed page of The New York Times, agrees. “What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist — ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?”
That is the nub of the big worry.
In spite of the prolonged polarization and extreme partisanship of the past 20 years or more, the final results of politics — laws and policies — have not been that extreme. Regardless of the noise levels, the distance between the credible right and left in the U.S. is narrower than most countries. And voters have not given either party undivided control for very long.
It has been extremely rare for an extremist or “fringe candidate” to get the nomination of a major party. It happened to the Republicans in 1964 with Barry Goldwater and in 1972 to the Democrats with George McGovern (the losing sides never had a prayer in those elections, anyway). There’s never been an election where both parties nominated far wingers, at least not since the very olden days.
But, as the Journal said, “normal American political conventions” haven’t applied so far in this cycle.
In some quarters, panic and worry aren’t springing from altruistic patriotism as much as from self-interest or partisanship. But for most, it’s both.
Both Republicans and Democrats think their party can win the White House in 2016 — and they’re correct. The prediction models political scientists concoct using macroeconomic data, past voting behavior and public opinion research point to a coin-toss election. So when practical partisans see their own parties self-destructively flirting with their extremes, they freak out.
Democrats are having a philosophical fit that Trump or Ted Cruz could become president and join forces with a Republican Congress.
But they’re also in a political panic. Democrats no longer dismiss the idea that Sanders will get the nomination. The vast majority think Sanders will get clobbered in the general election, drag the rest of the ticket down with him and set the party back a few decades.
Their deeper fear is that Hillary Clinton is just a lousy candidate. Sanders’ success so far proves that. So, sure, the odds are that Clinton will beat Bernie in the end. But that is cold comfort for her prospects in the general.
Plenty of Democrats (and Republicans) think Clinton would beat either of the Republican extremists, Trump or Cruz. But there are plenty who don’t, who think that anything can happen if the political world is topsy-turvy enough for the GOP to actually nominate one of them.
The Democratic establishment is trying to fix the first problem, perhaps lamely. Democratic politicians are starting to attack Sanders more aggressively and publicly.
That isn’t happening so much on the Republican side, one reason why their panic is greater.
The Republican establishment can’t stomach either Cruz or Trump (and the right-wing establishment can’t stand Trump). They think nominating either one would be assisted-suicide, and their moral or philosophic revulsion is real, too.
But there isn’t any concerted establishment attack on the extremists. Republican politicians are either too scared or too cynical. The howling is coming mostly from the watchers.
So, two of the most prominent Republican establishment columnists, Michael Gerson and David Brooks, both wrote impassioned, desperate pleas for their party to get sane and defeat Cruz and Trump.
“For Republicans, the only good outcome of Trump vs. Cruz is for both to lose,” Gerson pled.
“Very few presidents are so terrible that they genuinely endanger their own nation, but Trump and Cruz would go there and beyond,” Brooks declared.
Voters are used to choosing the lesser of two evils, but this year they’re taking the word “evil” literally. The politics of anger have produced exactly what the vast majority don’t want — more toxic extremism.
Yet for all the strife, the country in 2016 is not in an especially dire condition by historical and international comparison. There is no economic recession or depression, few soldiers are in jeopardy, national security threats are manageable and there are no epidemics, mass riots or explosions of crime.
Our politics are worse than our reality. That is an enormous civic failure. There is ample reason for voters of every stripe to be angry.
And it is depressing to argue that simply rejecting extremes and muddling through with the same establishment, centrist but polarized politics is the best we can do. But that appears to be the lesser of multiple evils.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.