The Case for Polarized Politics
Why America Needs Social Conservatism
by Jeff Bell
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Jeff Bell is running for Senate against Cory Booker in New Jersey. Bell is no newcomer to politics or to Senate campaigning: he won the 1978 New Jersey Republican primary then lost in the general election to Bill Bradley, and went on to an adviser role in the Reagan administration.
This book, written in 2012, does not outline Bell's campaign plans for 2014, but is more an academic thesis on the social conservatism movement. As Bell describes it, "the argument of this book is that the United States has polarization, while Western Europe does not, because the United States has a social-conservative movement and Western Europe does not. We have a social-conservative movement because many Americans still believe that the words of the Declaration--that all men are created equal--are literally true." (p. 123).
This book contains a lot of political theory and a lot of political history (our excerpts mostly skip over those parts because they don't address Bell's issue stances, but we include a few). There's a whole chapter on the history of social conservatism with regards to George W. Bush (Chapter 14, "Faith-Based Presidency"; we excerpt a few of these too.) But there are also sections dedicated to the history of conservatism in 1700s America, to the history of politics in Europe, and to the comparison of social conservatism with other current political movements (Bell says that there are only two other universal movements, the "left enlightenment"--by which he means liberalism and socialism-- and Islamic political ideology; pp. 251-2). Hence this book is not for the casual political reader: one must delve into history, political philosophy, and movement theory just to follow Bell's arguments.
The problem with this book is that Bell has to push hard to make the case that political polarization is good for social conservatism and vice-versa, and in doing so he must demonize the opposing side (which to Bell means the "left enlightenment", since Bell says that Islam is relevant as a political movement in Europe but not in America). That style of demonization is the reason that legislative compromises have been so difficult in recent years, because each side demonizes the other side. Bell knows how to forge legislative compromises: he worked with the same Bill Bradley who defeated him for Senate in getting Democratic acceptance of the Reagan tax package of 1986. But in this book, Bell describes polarization as a positive force, and hence has converted to seeing politics as a zero-sum game: for social conservatism to win, the left must lose, and compromise has no place in that dynamic.
Legislative reality means that elected representatives must work with their colleagues from the other side of the political aisle, if they want to actually pass legislation. Bell's demonization of the left implies that the two movements present in America today should, in his view, struggle for dominance rather than legislate. An alternative view is that both sides might respect that the other side are sincere that their beliefs will make for a better America--that would be non-demonization. I will answer for the "left enlightenment" to respond to Bell's demonizing charges against us, since I think Bell would consider me a member (I call myself a "progressive," which Bell discusses in historical terms too, as the Progressive Party of the early 1900s; but I mean a left-leaning libertarian):
The core question for those like Bell is this: Can you accept that the other side must exist, and that your side must work with them? I ask this question to extremists on the left regularly, and I'll admit that usually they are aghast. I follow up by pointing out that if we accept that the Republicans are sincere in their beliefs, and that there has to be an opposing party, then we might work towards electing Republicans who might work with the left. That leaves my colleagues on the left even more aghast, even though they agree that Republicans like William Weld are preferable to those like Jesse Helms and perhaps that Tea Party Republicans like Chris McDaniel are preferable to establishment Republicans like Thad Cochran. I think that sort of recognition--that conservatives have a right to exist--is the key to political maturity and legislative respect. Bell disagrees. I suspect Bell is in the majority; if you agree with him, you might want to read this book to give yourself an historical and theoretical underpinning to your own polarization.
- Bell on p. 74: In 2002, "a majority of House Democrats voted against granting the president authority to take military action against Saddam Hussein. [Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt's inability to carry his caucus was a warning signal that partisan polarization was surprisingly durable."
Left enlightenment response: Actually, I see that vote as a sign of non-partisanship: members of Congress in both parties voted their consciences rather than toe the party line. We progressives cared more about this vote than any other vote in that decade, so we paid attention to why Democrats voted Yes: none ever said they voted for invading Iraq because that was the party's official position.
- Bell on p. 76: During "the Howard Dean phenomenon of 2003, the highest-ranking members of the Democratic Party were unanimous in wanting to downplay Bush's conduct of the war as an issue. But the Democratic 'netroots,' in responding so favorably to Howard Dean, made it clear to Democratic elites that for them, playing down any disagreement with George W. Bush would be highly risky."
Left enlightenment response: Yes, I was a netroots Dean supporter primarily because of Dean's anti-war stance--but agreeing or disagreeing with Bush on other issues was not critical to us. We cared a lot whether the other candidates supported the Iraq War (as John Kerry did, so Dean supporters disliked him almost as much as they disliked Bush) but we cared about it because the war was our most important issue, not because other Democrats and Bush agreed or disagreed. Yes, Howard Dean supporters were partisan, but not in the sense that Bell thinks--we were as anti-Democratic Party establishment as we were anti-Republican Party.
- Bell on p. 77: "The liberal left converted Bush's handling of Iraq into a character issue, summed up in the slogan, 'Bush lied, people died.' On the rational level, this accusation made no sense. When asked directly, prominent Democrats nearly always admitted that their vote to overthrow Saddam was based no the same faulty prewar intelligence concerning Iraq's WMDs that had influenced Bush."
Left enlightenment response: Yes, we considered the Iraq War a character issue--but it was about Kerry's character as well as Bush's, because Kerry drank the Kool-Aid that Bush offered. The demons at the anti-war rallies were Bush AND Kerry AND Edwards AND all the other Democrats who voted for the war AND the New York Times and Washington Post for not reporting on the anti-war movement. It was a character issue because we knew Bush was lying about Iraq's WMD. That was common knowledge at anti-war rallies: I was one person among 15 million who refused to accept Bush's brainwashing about Iraq and WMDs, and we very much blamed that whole list above, and many others, for participating in the brainwashing. This was simply not a partisan issue: we despised ANYone of ANY party who supported the war!
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, OnTheIssues.org, June 2014
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Click for quotations from other sources by:
- Jeff Bell
The above quotations are from The Case for Polarized Politics
Why America Needs Social Conservatism
by Jeff Bell.
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