Moderation in the US?

A post from PaulL, an irregular contributor.

In recent years the USA appears to have been becoming more partisan and more polarised. Certainly this is the theme we hear from the media, and see online in social media. There is a consistent appearance of a hollowing out of the middle, and a view that the US is sorting into two parties along many more lines than just politics.

There are a set of people who live mostly in “fly over country”, they’re god fearing, they support capitalism, they like their guns, their dogs, their women are stay at home mothers, and they vote Republican. Then there are a set of liberals who live on the coasts, have never seen a gun, they like LGBTQI rights, socialism, they’re two income families, and they vote Democrat. The story is that where you used to live in a small town and mix every day with people of different opinions, nowadays there are these two homogenous groups who never really intermingle, and who accordingly “other” the opposition.

It’s a popular thesis, but I’m not sure it’s ever been true. I’m starting to see signs that the narrative is breaking down, and I welcome those signs.

Firstly let’s talk about abortion. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and returned abortion rights to the states I was optimistic. I know it was very disruptive for a lot of people, but my view at the time was that treating abortion as a “right” was never going to lead to stable policy. The reality is that abortion is actually a conflict of “rights” – the right of a women to control her own body, and the right of a child to life. These two rights are directly conflicting – there is no solution that preserves entirely both of these rights.

When government and democracy refuses to deal with a conflict like this, and instead pushes it to the courts to find a right, it incentivises all or nothing politics. On one side are the “right to life” advocates. To them abortion is murder, clearly anything other than a total ban on abortion is condoning murder. Sure, the mother may have been raped, by her father, as a teenager, but that’s not a reason to murder a child.

On the other side are the “right to choice” advocates. To them a woman has 100% right to control her own body. You cannot force her to have a baby she doesn’t want, therefore abortion should be permitted at will up to the moment of birth.

You saw this in political rhetoric. Republican politicians saying that a raped teenager who had an abortion should go to jail. Democrat politicians declaring it’d be OK to “abort” a perfectly healthy baby at 9 months old, and supporting partial birth abortions, which most normal people see as more akin to killing a baby that’s just been born.

In other countries there was a political debate, and a compromise was reached. Funnily enough countries as disparate as Sweden and Ireland came to quite similar compromises. First trimester pretty easy to get, second trimester only with reason (noting that a Down’s test isn’t conclusive until second trimester), third trimester only with a really good reason and approval. All of us should hope to never be in one of the situations that qualify as “really good reason” – baby terminally ill, mother likely to die, other horrific situations and choices.

Surveys in the USA told us that there was an unheard middle, and that there were a plurality of voters who would support a compromise similar to most other countries. However, there was no political path to get there – the solution lay in the Supreme Court, and the Court could only find 100% one way or the other, it couldn’t find somewhere in the middle.

Then the overturning of Roe v Wade (which was always bad precedent) returned the decision to the states, and more importantly, to legislation rather than constitutional judgement. There was lots of noise, and lots of states passed extreme legislation one way or the other.

Recently Ohio gave us the first glimmers of another way. Ohio is a deeply Republican state, with a Republican government. They passed a law entirely banning abortion after 6 weeks. No exceptions for rape, for the health of the mother, for incest. Any abortion beyond 6 weeks was illegal. Many women wouldn’t even know they were pregnant at 6 weeks. This is pretty much the position the Republican party has always taken, and the one that they think is popular.

The Democrats put up a referendum at the recent mid-terms. They went for a compromise position – instead of putting up “any abortion any time up to birth” as was the prevailing Democratic position, they put up a law that permitted abortion up to the point of viability, generally assumed to mean 24 weeks, or 6 months / end of second trimester. This is more broad than what other countries typically settle on. It was passed, despite being a heavily Republican state. Interviews suggest that the general public didn’t love it, but they liked it more than a law that had no exceptions and was incredibly tight at 6 weeks.

My view is that this is the first sign of the compromise that we can get from the political process. Whomever is closest to the middle wins, instead of whomever is most partisan winning. Republicans put up 6 weeks, no exceptions. Dems counter with 24 weeks (second trimester), which is closer to the position most people intuitively want. Republicans are saying that they made a mistake and over-reached, there’s talk of trying again for perhaps 12 weeks (first trimester), and exceptions for rape, incest, health of mother. And maybe that’ll pass. And maybe Dems will try again with first trimester no rules, second trimester with rape, incest, health of mother, and baby has developmental issues. It’s converging.

This fills me with hope for the US system. The more they get back to centrist / across the aisle politics, the less toxic politics they have.

The next area that I think will move is presidential candidates. At the moment the accepted wisdom is that it’ll be Biden v Trump, and Trump will probably win. That’s a sad situation, they’re both bad candidates, and it’s incredibly weird that the two best candidates for President in a country with 350m people are both around 80.

But already the talking is starting.

Any generic Democrat would beat Trump. Basically if they nominate someone vaguely sensible (i.e. not Kamala) and who isn’t Biden, then they beat Trump. There’s talk that Biden might stand aside for health reasons, and influential Democrats are part of that discussion.

But if he does, then Trump isn’t a winning candidate for the Republicans. If that becomes clear, then the Republicans in turn will need to take a hard look, and consider whether some other candidate would give them much better win probability.

So I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s a return to fighting elections, and the political process in general, in the centre.

The only thing I wish for to further evolve this process is the advent of open cross-party primaries in the US. That would change the electoral maths from the most extreme candidate winning (in the primary, and therefore in the election) to a world where the most widely appealing candidate wins (in the primary and the election). That would return American politics to the centre, and remove the current trend towards polarisation.

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