Where has the political center gone?

Regardless of the election results, I have to wonder where the political center has gone in America. Since 1992 the Democrats have moved to the center, an approach which brought electoral success (and has brought electoral success elsewhere as well). Kerry as well has tried to position himself towards the center and, arguably, he would be considered center-right in most countries around the world. Bush, on the other hand, has made little effort to portray himself as a centrist; he has adhered to the record of his administration which has, by all accounts, been well to the right.

It can be hard to define the nature of political polarization under the Bush administration. It strikes me, though, that one way to characterize the nature of Bush's polarizing effect on the political climate might be that he has succeeded in opening at least as great a gap between the center and the right as used to exist between the right and the left, effectively eliminating the electoral advantage of the center, namely the ability of the center to draw support from both the left and the right. Not terribly insightful, I know, but it is a bit more helpful that describing polarization as an increase in the volume level of political discourse.

The real question is how was a strategy of polarization pursued and why did it succeed? I have to wonder if polarization would have been possible without the contentious outcome of the 2000 election to fix the divisions of that election across the political spectrum, creating the divisive basis which Bush could exploit to get polarization to take; without that divisive basis, I doubt the polarizing project could have got a toehold: those on the center-right would have moved to the center in the face of such an attempt. Ironically on this suggestion, even as the 2000 result didn't provide a mandate for Bush's rightward move, it provided the ground on which Bush could polarize the political climate to pursue a rightward move without jeopardizing his reelection chances. Or so's my intuition.


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