Where have all the moderates gone? Politics as 'gladiatorial combat'

Barry Glassner first detailed how politicians use fear-mongering in his 1999 book “The Culture of Fear.” He wrote of politicians claiming America was on the decline, like those who coined the term “super-predators” to describe young American men with suppressed rage who would grow up to ruin the country if not reared early.

Fear-mongering has never declined, Glassner said Sunday at the Festival of Books, but it did change. When Glassner’s book was republished for its 10-year anniversary, its cover carried the phrase “Updated for our post-9/11 world.” 

At a panel titled “Out of Focus: Politics, the Media and Perspective,” Glassner, now the president of Lewis &  Clark College in Portland, pointed to the tonal shift after the terrorist attacks. No longer was America home to a sick society. Rather the discourse was now about how great the country was and how jealous others must be to attack it. The enemies changed from domestic to foreign.

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“At every airport in America you saw a color-coded terrorist threat level,” Glassner said. “There was never a time when you weren’t supposed to be afraid. It was ‘How afraid?’ ”

The panelists each touched on themes from their recent books during a session that featured rants and friendly arguments.

Geoffrey Kabaservice said he set out to answer one question before writing his latest work: Whatever happened to the moderate Republican?

Kabaservice said the term sounded like a contradiction these days. But he had seen moderates in the Republican Party champion civil rights and uphold values that were instilled during the party’s founding, only to become the enemy of the conservative base.

Kabaservice, who wrote “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” pointed to George Romney, father of Mitt and former governor of Michigan. When Romney made a remark during his 1968 presidential campaign that his earlier support for the Vietnam War was a result of “brainwashing,” members of his own party used his words against him to squash Romney’s bid.

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“Politics has become gladiatorial combat. Moderation has become boring,” Kabaservice said. “To be a moderate is to have some doubts, which is not" appealing.

Robert Scheer, who represents the left on the KCRW radio show “Left, Right and Center,” said his feedback can be based on how he says things more than what he says.

“It’s a question of style and tone,” Scheer said. “If I get agitated, [people will say] ‘Scheer’s no longer a moderate.’ ”

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