Every election there is much lamenting the media's lack of interest in the issues. In fact, the media have given the issues -- trade, "decline," arms control, Central America, SDI, taxes, drugs -- about what they are worth. But the really interesting question about this election is not about issues or even personalities, but about the rise, in both parties, of the extremes.
Democracies tend naturally to be pulled toward the extremes in times of crisis. The '30s saw the rise of fascist and communist parties in the West. The early, very tense Cold War year of 1948 produced two extreme candidacies in the United States: Henry Wallace on the left and Strom Thurmond on the right. In the late '60s and early '70s, Vietnam and urban riots produced George Wallace, redneck populist. Wallace's brief surge was bracketed by the Goldwater and McGovern insurgencies, which thrived in the same civil rights-Vietnam turmoil. But in quieter times, democracy, and American democracy in particular, has a genius for weeding out the extremes and pushing parties and politics toward the center.
By any historical standard this is not a crisis year. And yet -- here's the puzzle -- the extreme wings of both parties, represented by the reverends, Jackson on the left and Robertson on the right, will go to their respective conventions with large blocks of delegates (perhaps as large as 25 percent in Jackson's case) and with a large say in the direction of each party.
Both Jackson and Robertson sit on the far edges of the political spectrum. America has liberals, but at the national level Jackson is the only authentic American representative of what Europe calls the left. His domestic policy is radically class conscious, to the point that what liberal politicians like to call the fairness issue, and might occasionally dare to call exploitation, Jackson denounces as "economic violence," fightin' words. His Third World-oriented foreign policy is a secular version of liberation theology. And since, under this theory, the oppressed of the Earth yearn to be liberated from the United States, this makes for an American foreign policy so idiosyncratic that, for many years until Jackson, it has not been seen at the level of presidential politics. His is truly a new voice.
Robertson's extremism is of a different variety. His foreign policy, aggressive, apocalyptic and suspicious to the point of paranoia, has echoes of Curtis LeMay. But the Robertson campaign is really about domestic policy. It contemplates a program of purification of private conduct that even many conservatives cannot abide.
And yet Robertson and Jackson have become major figures in their parties. This, in a time of low unemployment, low inflation, peace abroad and no acute social crisis at home. True, there is apprehension about the future. But when in American history was there not? Looming deficits are a difficult issue, but hardly as wrenching and divisive as, say, Vietnam or race riots.
Why, in the absence of crisis, the rise of the extremes? My theory is that this is a pure process effect: a radical result of changes in political procedure, rather than of changes or crisis in the underlying conditions of American life. The normal mechanisms of parliamentary democracy -- winner-take-all elections, centralized political parties -- favor coalition-building candidates of the political center. What has happened in our time is a fragmentation, or better, disintegration of the process: the rise of the caucus, the proliferation of primaries with proportional representation, the decline of the party elites, and the influence of mass media with their taste for drama and showmanship, which gives extreme candidates disproportionate attention because they are so much more interesting to cover (and thus more likely to earn free media, the new mother's milk of politics).
The bias toward the center has disappeared. The great irony is that the rise of the extremes is a triumph for democracy: the process is finally letting the people speak in all their voices. The party system managed to suppress the more extreme voices in the past (except in time of crisis, when they became unsuppressable). No more.
This is truer democracy and we may live to regret its consequences. My guess is that we are in for a run in which the parties will be pulled progressively toward the extremes even in the absence of crisis. The truly scary thought is what happens when the crisis comes. In the next decade or two we might actually see some charismatic, left or right it is hard to tell, win it all.