Friday, June 11, 2010

A Centrist Looks at the Parties 3: Third Parties

Third parties only hurt the party closest to them. They are a gift to their enemies. Ross Perot took enough votes away from George H.W. Bush for Bill Clinton to get elected. Ralph Nader took enough votes away from Al Gore for George W. Bush to get elected.

The third parties are drawn from the angry wings. Centrists tend not to go in for the kind of institution destroying that you would have to do to make a third party.

I see an asymmetry, though, between the two kinds of third parties. There are angry extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. Aside from tiny socialist sects, though, the left extremes hardly ever split from the Democratic Party to mount a third party challenge. The Nader campaign was unusual because he persisted in a vanity campaign into the general election, even when it was clearly hurting his own side. Contrary to the usual stereotype, it is Democrats who are more disciplined about working within the party. This is the advantage of a being a "big tent." On the right end of the spectrum, though, short-lived parties come and go all the time. Whether organized around a rich guy or grass-roots anger, libertarian and nativist "parties" keep splitting the right and undermining the Republican Party.

I believe there are more significant third parties on the right than the left because the right wing of American politics was born of the marriage of Protestant sectarianism and "you can't tell me what to do" individualism. Both sides of this family are good for creating motivating passion. But they are bad for sustaining political parties.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Centrist Looks at the Parties 2: Democrats

The Democratic Party is a center-left party. At this time, it is the biggest tent. The Democratic Party is not a centrist party, but it has the greatest room and tolerance for centrists.

The left wing of the Democratic Party was been disappointed with President Obama. They have mounted primary challenges to several centrist Democrats.

I believe the big advantage that centrists have in the Democratic Party, as opposed to the Republican Party, is that these attempted purges have not, for the most part, succeeded. Several establishment Republicans have been knocked off by the Tea Party wing. No establishment Democrats have been knocked off by leftists in the Democratic Party this cycle. (I don't think anyone could count Senator Spector as an establishment Democrat.)

After President Reagan's defeat of President Carter in 1980, the Democratic Party was torn apart for a season by ideological fights and recriminations. The metaphor of a circular firing squad was appropriate. The party was brought back by a rising generation of centrists who were willing to horse trade with the other side. The country, and the world, enjoyed a moment of peace and prosperity.

The Republican Party is having its circular firing squad moment now. The emotional energy is on the right wing. But the future of the party lies, I believe, with a rising generation of centrists who will be willing to horse trade with the other side.

This is a great moment for the Democratic Party. I believe the Obama administration has done about as good a job as could be done in cleaning up the massive destruction they inherited, of which the Gulf oil spill is only the latest legacy. At the same time, they have had a few significant legislative and diplomatic achievements, with more to come before the mid-term elections. The party in power will, no doubt, lose seats in the mid-term, as usually happens. But eventually there will be centrists Republicans to work with, who will strengthen the centrist Democrats. Together they can use America's moment as the world's super power for the good of all.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Centrist Looks at the Parties 1: Republicans

I am a centrist. I pick the party that has the most viable place for centrists. I have voted for and registered as a Republican in the past. Lately, though, I find the Democratic Party is the only viable home for a centrist. The Democratic Party is a bigger tent. The Republican Party is prone to purges designed to drive out the ideologically impure, including centrists who want to work with the other party to govern.

The Republican Party was born of establishment white Protestantism, which remains the core Republican constituency today. I am an establishment white Protestant. Most members of my church, the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are Republicans. The great strength of the historic core of the Republican Party has been fiscal responsibility and a strong military to build up good order in society. I believe American politics works best when one party holds up this side of government, in constant dialogue with the party of helping people in need and defending the weak for the compassionate order of society.

Sometimes, though these Republican virtues get pulled, by anger and fear, to a bad extreme. Fiscal responsibility becomes "only spend money on me"; a strong military becomes "use any force on anyone who might threaten me"; build up the good order of society becomes "prevent government". Worse, establishment white Protestantism has a tendency, when fearful, to become an angry nativism that turns harshly against immigrants and imagined conspiracies by foreign ideologies.

The precursor to the Republican Party was the Whig Party. It had the same core and, at its best, the same strengths. The Know Nothing movement tore apart the Whig Party. The Know Nothings lasted only a few years, and produced no legislative achievements. Today the Tea Party movement occupies the same position in relation to the Republican Party. I do not think the Republican Party will be torn apart, as the Whigs were. But I do think that the current nativist tempest will subside, the fear and anger will recede to the wings.

I look forward to the return of the traditional Republican Party as a partner with the Democratic Party in good government.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Authentic Happiness 1: The Pillars

I have previously blogged on Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism, the starting point of his trilogy on positive psychology. This week I will be considering the conclusion of his trilogy, Authentic Happiness.

Positive Psychology has three pillars:

Positive emotion

Positive traits – especially strengths and virtues, but also abilities

Positive institutions – democracy, strong families, free inquiry

Positive psychology has to make a case for positive emotions because they are arguing with Freudians, who say that our achievements and creativity are driven by channeling negative emotions. Seligman argues, probably too emphatically, that "there is not a shred of evidence that strength and virtue are derived from negative motivation." This is mostly an intra-psych squabble about how important and fleeting emotions are.

The strength of positive psychology, in my view, is its attempt to reconnect the psychologists' "traits" with the philosophers' and religious leaders' "virtues." The empirical work that positive psychology builds on is best when it shows how habits of action produce our long-term gratifications and troubles. My favorite sentence on the ambition of Seligman's movement is this: "we need a psychology of rising to the occasion."

The part I am most interested, as I try to construct a positive sociology, is his claim that the third pillar is positive institutions. I think he makes a suggestive beginning in this book in connecting positive character with positive institutions. Most of this work, though, remains to be done. And nearly all of it, I think, is beyond the tools of psychology.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Blockades Hurt Potential Friends

I have long thought the blockade of Cuba was a bad idea. If we had had vigorous trade relations with Cuba from the outset of the Castro regime, they would be turned into a democratic market society no later than 1989, and probably long before. Isolating Cuba from the strong appeal of freedom and freely available stuff just pushed them into the arms of the Soviets and strengthened the Communist regime. I look forward to visiting democratic Cuba soon after we end this foolish policy. Aid and trade wins friends among ordinary people, even if the regime never likes us. In the long run, even in the medium run, that friendship and ordinary intercourse matters more.

The blockade by the Israeli government of Palestine is a bad idea. If they had vigorous trade relations with one another, and all the other kinds of intercourse normal between two intertwined nations, Palestine could turn fully into the democratic market society that it almost is already. Isolation pushes ordinary Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and the violent extremists. Fomenting permanent fear has a similar effect on ordinary Israelis and their equivalent extremists. Aid and trade wins friends among ordinary people, even if the regimes never like one another. In the long run, even in the medium run, that friendship and ordinary intercourse matters more.