Political consensus allegedly took another hit last week, as two moderate Democratic Congressmen lost to more liberal opponents in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primaries. Reporters attributed the defeat of incumbents Jason Altmire and Tim Holden to their votes against the Obama health care plan and their opposition to global warming legislation – yet more evidence, they said, of the polarization of America’s two major parties. This raises an interesting question: why is it polarizing for Democratic candidates to support (1) the health care law that is the signature legislative achievement of their party’s president and (2) climate legislation, when the scientific debate on the issue has long been settled and the imperative to act is recognized by virtually everyone this side of Rick Santorum? To be considered a moderate, must you vote for the policies of the other party? When King Solomon threatened to cut the disputed baby in half, did he seriously believe that half a baby for each mother was a reasonable outcome?
In a recent documentary on New Jersey’s Raritan River, then-Governor Christy Whitman said, as she signed a Brownfields bill into law: “The fact that you have people on either side of the spectrum who are not 100% happy tells you that you probably struck a pretty good bargain right in the middle.”
But is the measure of moderation our willingness to sacrifice our beliefs to a more politically palatable consensus? What happened to the idea of standing up for them?
The public discourse in this country has turned ugly, I think, not because of the strength of our own beliefs so much as our refusal to respect those who disagree.