For decades, observers have commented about the widening gap between rich and poor, both within the United States and among the countries of the world. Robert Reich, a Harvard professor of economics before becoming Secretary of Labor during the first Clinton administration, often referred to this nation’s drift toward a “two-tiered society,” one well educated and wealthy, the other undereducated and in debt.
This type of polarization, which has been apparent in our economy, seems to be contagious, spreading to the political arena. One of the things that has become clear in watching the Republican debates is that a centrist position is no longer possible. Some candidates seem to delight in referring to Mitt Romney as a “liberal,” while they scurry to get somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.
Two years ago, I cited Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, as saying, “Soon we’re going to be able to go to museums to see the skeletons of the centrists and learn about what they were.” I don’t think that he was exaggerating. Centrist positions have rarely surfaced in any of the recent debates.
About the same time that West made his observation, Sen. Evan Bayh, a moderate Democrat from Indiana, decided not to run for reelection, despite a commanding lead in the polls over his opponent. His reason: “There’s too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.” Since then, the perennial adage that “politics is the art of compromise” has been all but discarded...