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America’s broken pendulum

By Bruce Abramson 
Real Clear Wire

The American constitutional structure was designed to promote moderation, compromise, and incremental change. Throughout most of our history, it has worked as intended. The pendulum of public policy has swung from left to right to left to right, but rarely too far in either direction. 

American versions of socialism and corporatism, faith and secularism, traditionalism and progressivism, have all been far milder than those that swallowed other societies. For that, we can thank the multiple divisions of power, checks and balances, and freedom of debate that have always characterized our national spirit.

A bit more than a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing far outside its historic range. As recently as 2010, Obamacare’s passage represented a recognizable victory for the left. The immediate, natural, and expected corrective rightward swing produced the Tea Party and the midterm “shellacking” of Obama’s Democrats.

That’s when things began to go awry. The weaponization of the IRS against right-leaning activist groups heading into the 2012 election arrested the rightward correction. Instead, the pendulum swung dangerously leftward, much faster and farther from center than at any prior point in American history.

President Obama conceded that he lacked the constitutional authority to alter immigration laws, then imposed his preferred DACA policy anyway – earning great acclaim for his problem-solving acumen. 

Attorney General Loretta Lynch equated laws preserving traditional men’s and women’s restrooms with Jim Crow – while colleges resegregated dorms, dining facilities, and ceremonies to dismantle the legacy of Jim Crow.

Such anomalies became the rule rather than the exception. The Overton Window – the range of policy preferences allowable in polite society and subject to serious debate – shifted repeatedly into previously unimaginable territory. It’s moved so far leftward that the dimly remembered center is now derided as far right.

Whereas we may once have asked how (or whether) society should accommodate men who choose to live as women, we have plunged deep into the metaphysics of a man becoming a woman.

Whereas we may once have debated placing a thumb on the scale to balance past discrimination in our quest for a colorblind society, we now debate the desirability of colorblindness against a regime of permanent, institutionalized discrimination.

Whereas we have long debated the wisdom of incarcerating certain classes of criminals, we now debate the immediate return of nearly all those arrested to city streets.

Whereas we once all agreed about the sanctity of free speech, we now debate the merits of a government agency charged with identifying and suppressing misinformation.

Whereas we long debated the use of proper public health quarantines and mandates, we simply launched headfirst into unprecedented lockdowns, suppressions of civil liberties, and mandatory use of a still-experimental vaccine – then delegitimized discussion and debate.

Whereas parents have long debated which childhood desires to indulge, we now fight over the compassion inherent in castrating and sterilizing children not yet comfortable with their own bodies.

As the pendulum swings ever further to the left, millions of Americans who have long considered themselves to the left of center notice that it has passed them by. Yet the moment they voice their mildest concerns, they find themselves shunned by friends and allies.

Today’s ruling alliance of the ideologically woke and the power-hungry establishment, however, does more than merely push the pendulum into uncharted territory. It seeks to dismantle every structure capable of bringing the country back toward a rational center. It changes the rules governing elections, immigration, speech, surveillance, and public safety, then applies prosecutorial discretion so blatantly political that it’s inconsistent with the rule of law. It hands a complex society, whose stability requires public confidence in institutions and experts, uniformly corrupt experts and untrustworthy institutions.    

Meanwhile, the inevitable backlash is beginning to take form. The long-negligible and toothless movements intent upon swinging the pendulum as far to the right as those currently in control have taken it to the left have begun to cohere. 

Conspiracy theorists have rediscovered antisemitism as the glue that binds together all conspiracies.  Attacks on beneficial reproductive and obstetric science surge forward. Blinkered isolationists pretend that two oceans provide the same protection they did in the nineteenth century. Calls for revenge advocate preserving all of the leftist outrages as precedent, then redeploying them against the left.

If allowed to fester, given time, such factions will pull the pendulum as far to the right as it is now to the left – posing just as grave a danger.

In 2020, many Americans craving a return to both the center and the Constitution’s centrist tendencies believed that an understated, elderly insider was a better bet than an energetic entertainer unbound by convention. Events have proved them wrong. As America contemplates a rematch, the choice has become clear.

A victory for Biden will dismantle the remaining safeguards capable of returning America’s historic moderation, tolerance, and centrism. To the extent that Biden may have different personal preferences, he has demonstrated conclusively that he does not control his most radical supporters; they control him.

A victory for Trump will embolden and cohere the potentially equally dangerous counterforces – but it will not necessarily empower them. Unlike those on the reckless left, these extremists are very far from control. 

If center-left and center-right align behind Trump, they can keep his administration focused on halting and reversing the breakneck leftward swing while rebuilding the constitutional system that has long kept us close to center. If too many centrists allow their personal distaste for Trump to place them in opposition, they will doom us to a dismantled system pitting two camps of dangerous extremists against each other for control over an increasingly authoritarian and anarchical America.

Welcome to 2024.

Bruce Abramson is executive director of New Student & Graduate Admissions at New College of Florida and a director of the American Center for Education and Knowledge. He is the author of “An American Vision for the Middle East” (Kindle, 2017) on the nature of Middle East conflicts, and “The New Civil War” (RealClear Publishing, 2021) on the corruption of American academia.

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