17 March 2007

Trimming the fringes

Over the last decade or so, as both parties have become beholden to their respective extremist elements (known on each side as "the base"), the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils has taken on an increasingly dire reality. On the one hand we have a bunch of people who think September 11 was a police matter and not an act of war, who don't grasp that the West is under concerted attack by Islamist fanatics, and who can't abide the use of American military power to protect American territory, people, and interests unless pre-approved by the UN, Jacques Chirac, and at least a couple of Middle Eastern tinpot dictators. On the other hand we have a crowd who blithely repudiate scientific facts (evolution, global warming) which they find philosophically inconvenient, who think the main legitimate functions of government are to humiliate homosexuals and force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and who in general seek to conform twenty-first century American society to the taboos codified in a befuddled collection of ancient Middle Eastern myths. Each election has been an exercise in trying to decide which form of insanity to tolerate for the sake of keeping the other one out of power.

Recently, however, there have been signs that both the left and the right are shifting away from their respective fringe elements and toward the sensible center.

On the left, efforts in Congress to defund the Iraq war effort and force an immediate withdrawal -- abandoning the Iraqi people to the murderous "insurgents" -- have been beaten back, though dangerously arbitrary deadlines are still under consideration. The earlier hyperventilating talk of impeaching President Bush has faded. The Democratic leadership in Congress has abandoned its earlier plan to demand Congressional pre-approval for military action against the Iranian nuclear program, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have explicitly declared that the military option must remain on the table. Whether these positions are the result of real conviction or simply recognition that the earlier hard-line ideas are politically suicidal, the result is still a victory for sanity and moderation.

On the right, the most obvious example is the Giuliani phenomenon -- a candidate whose views on abortion and homosexuals (as well as some aspects of his personal life) are anathema to the Christian Right is nevertheless the clear favorite of Republican voters, by a huge and growing margin. There is the almost-universal denunciation of Ann Coulter's latest foray into the use of bigotry as a shock tactic. Most interesting is the massive repudiation of right-wing rising star Dinesh D'Souza's hateful new book blaming the American left and secular values for Islamic terrorism and proposing a sort of alliance between the American Christian Right and the Islamists -- see this NRO symposium and this article by Victor Davis Hanson.* There is clearly a pulling back from the demonization of liberalism and secular values which has marked the last few years.

The shift to the center has provoked plaintive howls of betrayal from the fringes on both sides -- which is the best proof that it is indeed for real. With any luck, next year both parties will offer Presidential candidates who accept America as a secular society where people are free to make personal decisions unconstrained by ancient Middle Eastern taboos, and who are fully committed to the vigorous defense of that society against its enemies.

*This quote from Hanson's article is of particular interest:

I am no big fan of a Russ Feingold or a Howard Dean, but as fellow Americans I find more resonance with them than with conservative Muslims abroad who, at least currently, do not approve of religious tolerance, or an equality of women, or freedom of speech and expression. Personally in this war I prefer to make “common cause” with the atheist leftist Christopher Hitchens or Al Gore’s former running mate, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, or a liberal Tom Lantos (also named as a “domestic insurgent” on the D’Souza list) than with someone abroad who embraces sharia law.

Hanson certainly stands on the conservative side of the left-vs-right divide, but he recognizes that this divide is an internal one within a common civilization, and that it is far less profound or important than the vast gulf separating that civilization from Islamic barbarism. It's those people (on the left or the right) who don't recognize this reality who make up the most dangerous and reprehensible part of the fringes.

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