In the middle of his most recent offering, Indiana Policy Review book reviewer Mark Franke asked one of the most important questions of the modern political era.
In fact, if our polity is to survive its current state of fractured fragility, it might be the question: “Where is the red line between reasonable compromise and dying on the hill of principle?”
I don’t have any better answer to that question than Mark did, but it made me think. If this offering can get one other person to think, maybe we can get some kind of strange chain reaction of civic discussion started.
He posed the question in connection with reviewing three books having the same general theme: The two-party system is broken, and we desperately need to somehow find our way back to compromise before the nation is torn apart in the war of partisan extremes.
Here is my thought: What if these analysts, in dissecting the sad state of our major political parties, are focusing on the wrong thing? Isn’t in possible that the two-party breakdown is not the cause of our divisiveness but, rather, the result of it?
The names have changed, and some issues they favor have come and gone, but we have had two major parties almost from the beginning of the republic, ever since George Washington decided not to be president for life. They have survived and thrived by listening to the electorate, candidates doing their best to promise delivery of what is desired. The parties are what they are because of who we are.
We are taunted by the possibility that compromise has moved forever beyond our grasp. And the unanswered — because, so far, unasked — question is what has happened to us, the American people, to bring us to such an impasse? If we can figure that out, perhaps we can start understanding our “two-party problem.”
I have a thought about that, too.
Stated succinctly if simplistically, what we have today is a war between liberals and conservatives. Whatever else we may say about them, it seems fair to describe liberals as always wanting change and championing strong government activity and spending to achieve it. Conservatives want the stability of preserved tradition and champion strong government initiatives to achieve it.
Does that sound about right? If so, consider this:
It is much harder for conservatives to compromise than it is for liberals to compromise. That has nothing to do with the character or intentions of the people involved. It is in the very nature of conservatism and liberalism.
Conservatives want the status quo. Liberals want to break the status quo as decisively and as often as they can.
And when “no change” and “big change” clash, there is only one compromise: a little change. So, every compromise is a defeat for conservatism, however small, and it is a victory, however small, for liberalism. We can see this most often in budget discussions: Let’s keep the same budget (cuts are never on the table). No, let’s increase it by 20 percent. OK, let’s compromise at 10 percent.
The result is the inexorable march of change and an ever-contracting foundation of stability.
I think we have reached the point where conservatives are sick and tired of always being on the losing end of compromise. Because there are now a few news outlets not parroting the left-center narrative and because of the effects of social media, they are talking more to each other and getting in a “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” mood.
Liberals, on the other hand, are giddy with success. The more gains they make, the more they want. Every extreme position they beat conservatives down on just spurs them on to even more extreme positions. Because they still mostly control the narrative, and because of the effects of social media, they’ve convinced themselves that their positions are the only moral ones.
If I’m even close to correct, I have no idea where we go from here. I keep thinking that the liberals will go one step too far and champion something so crazy no sane person would accept it. But so far it hasn’t happened. I keep thinking conservatives will craft a coherent defense of American values and traditions, but that hasn’t happened, either.
Maybe it is easier just to blame the parties. Not our fault, move along, nothing to see here.
Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for best editorial writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]