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Henningsen: Abandoning The Center

“When they line up for a firing squad they form a circle.” So the late Democratic Congressman Mo Udall despaired when discussing his party’s disorganization some years ago. Today this seems to apply to both major parties, which are in a state of disarray not seen since the 1850's. Republicans offer the most obvious evidence – on a daily basis. They seem terrified of their own conservative base, which makes them avoid confronting an unpredictable president given to conducting affairs of state like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.

So the GOP struggles with the excruciating dilemma of controlling the national government without being fully able to exercise that control because of internal division – while Democrats are so engaged in a massive blame game over why they lost the last election that they run the risk of blowing the next one.

Both parties are fleeing the center, doubling down on their most reliable, most vociferous, and most extreme constituencies. The fact that the majority of the nation’s population itself remains slightly right of center, where it has been for decades, seems not to matter.

But it does.

It may take some time, but abandoning the center has two major consequences. First is learning the hard way that the correct answer to extremism usually isn’t becoming even more extreme. But that’s where the illogical logic of both political organizations seems to be heading.

The second major consequence of abandoning the center is that someone else will eventually claim it. This may take time – more time than any of us want and, in these dangerous moments, more time than many of us fear we may have - but so it goes. It’s happened before in the U.S. – in the 1790’s, the 1830’s and 50’s, and again in the 1930’s - and there’s no reason to believe that human nature has changed so much that new faces and forces won’t find opportunity in the vacuum created by today’s mutual paralysis.

We’re witnessing a triumph of ideology over practicality, which historians will tell you is always temporary and always ends badly. Historians will also tell you that there are better times ahead – but probably not soon.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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