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Lane: The balance of extremism and compromise in American politics

March 30, 2010

Charles Lane with the Washington Post has a good column today looking at this history of those who pushed the extremes in American politics, and the spirit of compromise that more often than not has kept this country together.

Lane notes that that split was evident in the original Boston Tea Party which is so commonly invoked today, with Benjamin Franklin calling it an act of “violent injustice” – the tea-throwing, not the tax – and the Sons of Liberty preferring uncompromising action.

From Lane’s column

But while political movements have embodied the spirit of anti-compromise, political parties have embodied the spirit of compromise. Whatever their names – Federalist, Whig, Democrat, Republican – the most successful American parties threw big tents over diverse interest groups and blurred lines of class, region and ideology. The parties co-opted extremes and – to be blunt about it — rescued politics from excesses of principle. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater announced in 1964. He was declaring war not only on the moderate establishment of his own Republican party, and that of the Democrats, but also on the historic function of all American political parties: to make it possible for government to salve conflicts and solve problems.

No doubt this has involved tradeoffs: Time and again, the parties have brokered peace at the expense of moral clarity. That is probably why the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, each of which attempted to save the Union while sacrificing African American freedom, ultimately broke down – along with the Whigs and Jacksonian Democratic parties that cobbled them together. At other times, though, the parties have helped hold the country together. In the 1960s, for example, society was polarized, but, broadly speaking, the Republicans and Democrats were not. They hewed to the vital center. The parties incorporated zealous elements on both the right and left, and gradually moderated them.

Lane’s column is a good read that gets you thinking about where the political parties, which are tending to side more with the extremists than the compromisers, are heading, particularly emerging from so contentious a debate as the one about health care reform.


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