The most surprising thing about Dick Lugar, a highly respected six term incumbent who last won re-election with over 80% of the vote, losing his primary to a hard-line Conservative earlier this year, was that actually no one really was surprised.
The reason of course, was that this was just the latest episode in the tea-party inspired purge of moderate Republicans. Since 2009 the GOP, famously the "big tent" of US politics, has shrunk to the ideological fringes as lawmakers who dared to work across party lines have fallen victim to the wrath of right-wing pressure groups. Such has been the fervour of the cull, that the GOP willingly threw away control of the Senate in the mid-terms, rejecting popular moderate candidates in favour of unelectable extremists. Since then, the trend has continued unabated, from Dick Lugar to Olympia Snowe moderates have been defeated, fled the party or simply thrown in the towel.
What's more the bloodletting isn't limited to the Republicans. In two recent intra-party contests in Pennsylvania, moderate democrats fell at the hands of Union backed left-wing challengers. Whilst centrist Democrats in Conservative states such as Nebraska and North Dakota have called it a day rather than face up-hill re-election struggles. No surprise then, that in the next congress, membership of The Blue Dog caucus of moderate Democrats will hit a historic low.
And the consequences for American democracy? With lawmakers now either unwilling or too fearful to make deals across the aisle, gridlock has become the norm. Just 17% of Americans now approve of the job their bickering congress is doing. Partisanship is even damaging the US economy, the refusal of either side to compromise over the debt ceiling last year almost resulted in America defaulting on its debt. Crisis was averted, but too late to stop Standards and Poor downgrading the US credit rating because of the controversy.
As a Brit, who is a self-confessed US-politics geek, I find it depressing, but at least I can be safe in the knowledge that in our own pluralist system moderates are in ascendency. Or are they? Recently there have been worrying signs that we are in danger of following the lead of our friends across the pond.
Just last month GMB passed a motion, backed by other major unions, calling for the moderate Progress think tank to be expelled from the Labour Party. Earlier this month the PCS union established a fighting fund to support "anti-austerity" candidates against more centrist Labour candidates. Whilst moderate Blairite Minister Liam Byrne has been stripped of responsibility for the policy review. And who can forget last year's Labour Party Conference when the mention of Tony Blair, the moderate pragmatist who helped gift Labour three election victories, was met with a chorus of boos.
On the right, Cameron's modernisation project, largely rooted in the need to embrace the centre ground, is under daily attack by right-wingers who smell blood in the mid-term blues. The 2010 intake of Conservative MPs is one of the most talented in its history, and yet there is a notable absence of MPs who share the views of Ken Clarke or Lord Heseltine. In fact it seems unlikely you could find a Conservative association who would select a candidate with Heseltine or Clarke's views today.
The shift in attitude towards the Liberal Democrats is even more worrying. If the polls are to be believed, the party looks set to take their biggest electoral drubbing since the 1920s. Why? Because they agreed to work with another party in the national interest and accepted the need for compromise. Now barely a day goes by without them being lambasted as "unprincipled traitors", "Tory enablers" or "sell-outs".
What's so odd about this attitude is, if the electorate have shown one thing over the past fifty years it's that they want politicians who occupy the centre ground. Our politics are stronger for the presence of those who work across party lines, who can broker compromise and build a consensus that brings with it the many, not just the few. That is not to say that there is no place for ideological firebrands, our politics is also richer for the likes of Nadine Dorries and Dennis Skinner too, but the system only works if they're complimented by those of a more moderate disposition.
America has brought lots of great things to this country; from Krispy Kreme to the West Wing we'd be lost without them. But a political system pulled apart by politicians who don't see the virtue of compromise isn't something we should seek to mimic. In the words of Senator Snowe we need our politicians to realise "that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building -- but also a political reward for following these tenets". In her country this plea has fallen on death ears, it's now incumbent on all of us who believe in the strength of compromise to ensure the same doesn't happen here.
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