American politics has seen the middle ground abandoned, for the moment

American politics has seen the middle ground abandoned, for the moment

The sheer thrill and excitement in Washington of a visit last week by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was muted by news from next door in Virginia that a senior member of the Republican First XI in the House of Representatives had been clean bowled at the Virginia Republican primaries by a Tea Party candidate no one had ever heard of. This candidate spent 5 per cent of the money Eric Cantor had spent on his campaign; he argued that Cantor should be thrown out for capitulating to Obamaism, big government and advocates of immigration reform.

Those eagerly discussing the result tended to be focused on whether this meant that the Tea Party was having a revival, after being generally counted as past its peak, and whether the "grassroots" of the Republican Party were still suffering from the sort of death wish that has, in recent times, seemed to make many national Republicans all but unelectable after they have moved so far to the right to win support in the primaries that it has become almost impossible to scramble back towards the middle in the actual contest with the Democrats. (In the US, that contest is on in November, in the middle of Obama's last term as president. Virginia held this particularly primary earlier than usual because it had been assumed that the renomination of Cantor, the House majority leader – effectively number two, after Speaker John Boehner – in the most populous and powerful house of Congress, was a shoo-in whose obligations to the national campaign, later on, should not have to be distracted by local matters. Now he will have all the time he wants, unless he searches for, and succeeds in winning, another seat.)

Ousted US House majority leader Eric Cantor.

Ousted US House majority leader Eric Cantor.

Cantor, like Boehner, was closely associated with the disastrous brinksmanship that saw the Republican-dominated Congress challenge the Obama administration over the debt limit, the budget and taxes. He has hardly been either a left-winger, in Republican terms, or even a moderate, in the older Republican sense of the word.

Indeed, though he had not strictly identified with the more messianic aspects of the Tea Party, he was generally well to the right wing of his party on all of its shibboleths, and certainly paid great lip service to the somewhat suicidal total politics strategies of refusing ever to be seen approving higher taxes, higher debt or higher government expenditure. Or, apparently, anything that will regularise or otherwise improve the situations of the millions of Latinos, many of whom having relations with voting rights, whose rights of residence are uncertain.

Yet in practical government, strict purity on such matters is rather difficult, as Tony Abbott can attest. And because Tea Party constituents have been so insistent on strict purity, they have tended to feel that anyone willing to compromise with the status quo, or ready to negotiate for the best possible outcome, is a complete sellout – not worth the effort of supporting.


This week the Pew Research Centre published American polling research showing how little party activists any longer represent ordinary Americans, and how little the middle ground of politics gets a guernsey in the party's forums. Republican activists are not only likely to be well to the right of the American spectrum on virtually all litmus issues but think that even the mainstream views of Democrats, or the actual middle ground, represent a serious clear and present danger to the future of America.

Activist Democrats, by contrast, are likely to be liberal, in the American sense, on almost all issues and to have no ideas or ideals in common with Republicans. Once about a third of Democrats, including elected ones, were to the right of about a third of Republicans. Not any more. There is a big divide, and it's the bigger the more a person tends to identify herself or himself with a party. The divide is geographical and demographic. Not only do Republicans not talk to Democrats, even in the neighbourhood; increasingly they would not live in the same neighbourhoods. If there were to be a new American civil war, one would know where the borders would be.

So great is the divide, in fact, that a good many Republicans hardly know, or care to associate with, any Democrats, and vice versa. And there are relatively few things, even involving the flag or apple pie, that they can all agree about.

Meanwhile the political views of most Americans have not changed that much (although they tend to have shifted over time to the right). While political success still depends on conquering the middle ground, not only is the "middle" of each party further from the middle than ever but the "middle" of its activist constituencies is even further. For Republicans that means that appeasing their strongest supporters can tend to be electoral suicide – if only because it makes reaching out to critical groups in the middle impossible. Likewise, apparently, for the Democrats with theirhouse leftists, even if these are the ones who will do most work.

And the further parties and their most active supporters are from the middle, the more likely (and potentially the more suicidal) the type of total no-quarter warfare of so much modern politics. In America the significantly looser party structure was designed to promote compromise. Otherwise government is practically impossible. Perhaps it is similar in Australia.

The US does not have compulsory voting. Successful candidates, whether in the primaries or in the actual elections pitching the candidates preselected by the primaries, must persuade voters not only that they are the best candidate but that they are good enough to be worth the effort of going off to a polling booth to vote for. In some cases, particularly in presidential campaigns, there is a third stage, of persuading people to register so that they will be eligible for a vote on election day. In total politics there's a fourth issue; of binding one's own interests to the results, even if they are unhappy with the outcome. Among the Republicans in particular, regular activist Tea Party or Christian fundamentalists can hardly be bothered to vote for a middle-of-the-roader, particularly if he (or she) is pro-abortion, or an economic moderate. What's the point, they ask? That, say, a Richard Nixon would be today an impossible leftist, as in Australia so would be a Malcolm Fraser or a Robert Menzies, is neither here nor there.

Eric Cantor's fundamental problem was not that he is or was a rat or a sellout, or unworthy of being described as a Republican. It was that the primary was regarded by most of the population as being so dull and unimportant that very few registered Republicans could be bothered to make the effort to come out to vote for him. This may have not been so much because of actual dissatisfaction with him – although he had been taking his electorate a little too much for granted. But he had failed to enthuse and motivate a great number of his ordinary supporters, few of whom in any event had appreciated that he was in trouble. He seems himself to have recognised this, belatedly; he spent $5.4 million on his campaign, against the $200,000 spent by his opponent, David Brat. Brat was little known, but had a tight core of supporters, mostly from the born-again Tea Party constituencies.

Australia has compulsory voting and does not have primary elections as such, even if Labor is experimenting with them. But its parties often suffer, particularly when in opposition, from the fact that the party organisation and membership is far from representative, whether of party membership as a whole or of the electorate at large. It's a problem compounded when, as in both the Labor and Liberal parties, players and fraudsters can manipulate preselections with branch-stacking, legalisms and, at least in Labor, the pretence that union affiliation should allow union organisers to act as proxies for their members.

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