Columnist: Thought of the Day — A rising middle?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 28, 2015

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

America is large and diverse. So it is risky to draw conclusions based on local samples.

Nevertheless, a recent conversation with the chair of one of Old Lyme’s two political parties was of interest. Each of the two main political parties have roughly 30 percent of registered voters. Both, however, have been losing members, while the ranks of independents — unaffiliated, as they are known in Connecticut — have been growing. The latter comprises 40 percent of the electorate.

Nationwide, a 2013 Gallup Poll showed Republicans with 25 percent, Democrats with 31 percent and independents with 44 percent. Twenty five years ago, those numbers were, respectively, 31 percent, 36 percent and 33 percent. While this is not a tsunami, it is a trend.

There are myriad reasons for this shift, including a decline in the homogeneous nature of our culture to less parental influence and, importantly, a decline in community social groups that once helped bind us. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” wrote of the decline in civic and community service organizations 15 years ago.

Last year the federal government sponsored a study by the Corporation for National & Community Service that identified falling rates of volunteerism. Another study by USA Today showed similar trends among college graduates.

The void created by the loss of volunteers has been filled by government employees. More government workers mean increased government spending.

Gerrymandering has meant less competition between parties and more among inter-party factions. The result: more people feel isolated from a expanding sense of extremism in both parties.

As the ranks of the political parties become thinner, they naturally become increasingly polarized. Our political system abets the process. Thirty-six states, including Connecticut where I live, and nine of the 10 largest states by population do not allow non-party registered voters to vote in primaries. The consequence is that moderates are excluded from the process of selecting which candidates will be on the ballot.

Extremism comes in myriad varieties. Among right-wing Republicans, it is often manifested in a belligerent adamancy, at times accompanied with religious zealotry. Those on the far-left, equally adamant, are condescending and patronizing toward those that disagree with their ideas.

Each end of the spectrum feeds off the other. Intolerance breeds intolerance. Irresponsible spending, with cavalier attitudes toward taxpayers, gave rise to the tea party. Recalcitrant tea partiers made President Obama — along with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi — more imperious and less willing to compromise. From whatever direction extremes emerge and for whatever cause they advocate, they become tyrannies of the minority.

Tyrannies are dangerous. Tyrannies of the majority are largely checked by the Constitution. But there is no similar governor when the majority is held hostage by small, but no less dangerous, minority factions.

Mainstream media is quick to note how a handful of far-right Republican Congressmen threaten to control the agenda in the House. They are less quick, however, to note a similar role played by the EPA, the ACLU, public sector unions and college administrators.

Political correctness in schools, colleges and the workplace places the demands of a few above the needs of the many. Keep in mind, Communism in Russia and China, and Nazism and fascism in Germany and Italy were initially minority groups — two from the left and two from the right. Nevertheless, they took control of their countries with devastating results.

Recent history is important when considering how we arrived at this place and explains part of the frustration of those on the right. For five decades, ending in 1980, the country drifted, at times imperceptibly but always persistently, to the left.

For 32 of those years, Democrats controlled the White House. For most of those years they also controlled Congress. President Reagan’s policies slowed but did not reverse that trend. His tax cuts and lighter regulation provided a boost to the economy, and his toughness with the Soviet Union and the spreading of democratic capitalism showed the benefits to mankind of the West winning the Cold War.

The Internet has given life to conservative opinions that had been largely held in abeyance by a left-dominated media. Nevertheless, that leftward tilt remains, enhanced in the past seven years by the policies of President Obama. Reversing that decades-old trend may only come about when the financial consequences of today’s entitlement promises are realized.

In just over one year we will go to the polls to elect a new president. But consider where we are. We have a dysfunctional Republican Congress that has trouble deciding on a new House leader and an imperial democrat president who does not seek advice and consent from a Republican Senate — a man who prefers executive orders to the legislative process.

While a few of the Republicans running for president exude an uncompromising adamancy, most have been successful either as governors or senators where compromise became part of their curricula vitae. Democrats have failed to field a reasonable alternative to “she who would be crowned.”

While the election is too far away to make reasonable predictions, at this point likely Republican primary voters have selected Donald Trump to be their standard bearer. Mr. Trump, a successful crony capitalist, is a beneficiary of a world that honors celebrity and ignores character.

If current trends persist he will be paired against Hillary Clinton, a congenital liar and crony capitalist, who is more interested in serving herself than the public. Is this the best we can do?

The last eight years should have taught us the consequences of electing an extremist as president. Mr. Obama’s failures have nothing to do with his inexperience and everything to do with the choices he made.

We have an anemic economy, with middle-class wages stagnant, higher levels of poverty, widening gaps in wealth and income and employment participation at the lowest levels in almost 40 years. Racially and culturally, our country has become more divided.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 74 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of our country. Overseas, our foreign policies are in shambles. Islamic terrorism has worsened, Russia and China are on the rise, filling the void left by a United States gone AWOL. Federal debt has more than doubled. The only rein on spending has been an unpopular sequester.

An irony of this election is that one of the reasons people have become so disillusioned with Washington has been the explosive expansion in crony capitalism, yet the leading contenders of both parties are masters at the craft. As a builder and casino operator, Donald Trump has been financing politicians from the time he graduated out of short pants.

He has used his wealth to purchase politicians in both parties. Mrs. Clinton left the White House “dead broke.” Fourteen years later, she and her husband have an estimated net worth of $120 million.

Their wealth is not due to private enterprise. It comes from highly paid speeches to politically sensitive companies, banks and foreign governments. For eight years Mrs. Clinton was New York’s junior senator, a job that paid $145,000, and six years as Secretary of State, which paid $186,600.

In 2001, President Clinton began what is the now-named Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. It has raised about $2 billion. Obviously, a lot of that money stayed in Chappaqua.

Have those who Richard Nixon defined as the “silent majority” had enough? I don’t know. The higher probability is that polarization intensifies. Certainly dissatisfaction is rampant. But it is possible we may be drifting toward the center.

There is one thing that could be done right away. Enact legislation that would permit the 36 states that do not have open primaries to join the 14 that do. It may not solve all the problems of partisanship that threaten to suffocate our republic, but it would encourage primary candidates to appeal to the center. And no one can be elected president if they are not first nominated.

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He describes his political leanings as being based in the rapidly disappearing ideology of common sense.