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Sometimes it seems like American politics has been reduced to the tea party vs. Occupy Wall Street. Author Linda Killian would like to posit a different scenario: independent voters who can bring both ends toward the center.
The former senior editor at NPR labels the group “NPR Republicans.”
In “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,” Killian notes that these NPR Republicans abandoned their long-standing party affiliation to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.
In 2012, they’re up for grabs again.
This fickle group is made up primarily of the white, suburban, upper-middle-class, lineal descendants of what used to be called “country club” Republicans, with a smattering of Reagan Democrats thrown in.
They frown at wide economic disparity and hold generally liberal views on social issues.
“They are not exclusively WASPs, but if they aren’t, they usually dress and talk like them,” Killian writes. They “have a long family history with the Republican Party or adopted it after making their fortune. They are uncomfortable with excess, especially when it involves the government or political rhetoric, and are attracted by political candidates who appeal to intellect and reason.”
To ensure their voices will be heard, Killian urges them to demand bipartisan discourse and compromise on the floors of the House and Senate and a more civil tone on TV news shows.
Killian makes most of the classic assumptions associated with those who seem to think that all of the answers to political questions lie in the center. If reasonable people could just get together and talk things over, things would work out.
Of course, that pretty much describes how Washington has worked for most of the past seven decades. It’s precisely that sort of accommodation to the status quo that has enraged those on the left and right wings, as well as the other independents — made up mostly of the white working class — who are not the subject of Killian’s book.
When the differences between the parties amounted to “how much should we increase this program,” compromise was a lot simpler. Now that the question has turned to “which programs can we afford to keep,” the deal-making is much more difficult, if not impossible.
Another of Killian’s bugaboos is the “influx of money into politics and the undue influence of special interests and lobbyists who contribute that money.”
She scarcely credits the alternative argument — that more money means more political speech in the marketplace of ideas and that restrictions on money are tantamount to unconstitutional restrictions on speech.
Her position on that question should not be surprising, in light of her descriptions of today’s political excesses. All of Killian’s examples of “extremism” are on the right. She simply ignores the inflammatory rhetoric of the left, as if the center was balancing a see-saw that had weight on only one end. See-saws don’t work that way.
Killian’s sepia-tinted stroll down the memory lane of centrist movements begins, dubiously, with George Washington, whom she describes as a Freemason who had a disdain for party politics.
That he did. But, on questions of substance, Washington was a reliable Federalist standing against the tide of Jeffersonian Republicanism.
She follows with a brief review of the two-party system’s rise after the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and the electoral careers of independent candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, praising each as an antidote to party orthodoxy.
It should be noted that the one thing Roosevelt, Perot and Nader have in common is that they lost.
There’s a lesson there.
For all the teeth-gnashing among the chattering classes about NPR Republicans, soccer moms and NASCAR dads, most people vote with their party most of the time.
Killian’s thesis that a narrow sliver of the electorate can be decisive when voters are closely divided over big questions is valid, even self-evident.
In her previous book, “The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?” published in 1999, Killian effectively dissected the rise and fall of the dominant members of the 1994 Republican revolution.
In “The Swing Vote,” she takes a stab at a broader thesis, but she seems to forget one of the signal lessons taught by the class of 1994 — that politicians abandon their principles and rhetoric to occupy the squishy center at their own risk.