"The administration simply cannot pursue centrism as a political course for the nation. There is no longer a base to support centrism. Former centrists have been pulled to the poles of right- or left- wing populism, constraining the way the administration can effectively govern."
This striking assertion appears on page 414 of the paperback edition of an incisive new book on the politics of 2010, Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-Party System. Its authors are Scott Rasmussen, the ubiquitous robopollster, and Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant and a mastermind of Bill Clinton's reelection in 1996.
The book has its flaws - redundancies and too frequent hyperbole - but the authors present extensive polling evidence from many sources supporting their arguments.
One central argument, mentioned above, is that as of 2010, the political center has largely vanished, and energy in politics is consumed by right- and left-wing populism.
Right-wing populists comprise the more numerous faction and constitute the Tea party movement. "Right wing populists want government to get out of ordinary people's lives ... They believe the Obama administration has been overrun by left-leaning ideologues, controlled by the labor unions, and informed by statist policies being advocated and implemented by the populist left." (p. 34)
The authors present evidence from several polling organizations demonstrating that one-fifth of voters consider themselves Tea party members and as much as half of the electorate views the Tea party favorably.
The smaller group of left-wing populists seeks more government intervention, regulation, ownership and control. "Put simply, left-wing populists want to alter traditional capitalist arrangements in American and give government unprecedented influence and control over the financial markets and private sector industries in ways that were virtually unimaginable years ago." (p. 35)
Obama's presidency "has not only deepened the partisan divide but brought government itself to a crisis of legitimacy." (p. 404) The last part of that sentence may be an example of their hyperbole, but partisan polarization has mushroomed during the first eighteen months of Obama's time in office.
What does the future hold? The authors identify three central causes of 2010's politics. Obama's partisan governance, economic dislocation and the rise of an increasingly polarized media have shaped today's politics. Their media chapter astutely explains how partisan outlets have become a dominant information source for partisans and ideologues who share the preconceptions of Fox News, MSNBC and talk radio.
The economic causes, in their account, stretch beyond present difficulties to the long-term consequences of economic globalization that threaten to depress America's industries and working class wages.
By this account, one cause of the divide is here to stay - the partisan media. The variables that may change in the future are presidential governing style and the course of the economy.
If the economy remains sour and presidential governance remains strongly partisan, the politics of 2010 will persist, with the public veering between left- and right-wing administrations in a search for economic policy solutions.
The authors note how the Tea party movement shares much in common with the Perot movement of the 1990s, which faded as the economy improved later in that decade and federal budget deficits vanished. Perhaps a similar fate awaits the Tea party movement.
But the Perotistas faded thanks to the centrism of Bill Clinton and an economic boom. Similar trends now are not on the horizon. Moreover, the new partisan media culture arose after the Perot movement had subsided. So the Tea party and left populism may dominate our national discourse for years to come.
So how does a presidential candidate win in 2012 in such circumstances? The authors identify one surefire agenda item for electoral success. The public is so alienated from the political class - a trend well documented in their fourth chapter - that to achieve public credibility, a presidential candidate should propose a national referendum on an economic rescue plan. "By trusting, engaging and empowering voters, Washington can solve the deficit of trust crippling our nation's ability to come to terms with problems of epic proportions." (pages 468-9).
National referendums? That would be a landmark change in our national political system with all manner of implications. If we have come to that point, our politics are are indeed seriously dysfunctional.
Rasmussen and Schoen's book clarifies much about our contemporary politics and identifies important causes of our current political malaise. It is the best available guide to the politics of 2010.
Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .