We are taught that the political world is divided up between liberals and conservatives and that this is how it is and should be. But, as a recent email from a former student reminded me, we Americans don't always think and act as we should. He pointed out that he had two friends, both staunch Republicans and "conservatives", who had decided that the idea of nation building, especially in Afghanistan, was a pipe dream and that if Obama embraced it, he would fail. As my former student said: His two friends had actually adopted for once a genuinely conservative position on an issue. And I say hooray for them.
But I was led to speculate as to why our politicians seem to be unable to make similar "breaks" with what are taken to be liberal or conservative lines. And I also speculated that maintaining the distinction between liberal and conservative, despite the fact that Americans don't buy into it frequently, served the politicians self-interest somehow. How could that be? Well, and this is tentative to say the least, by maintaining that there are only two possibilities on any policy issue, e.g., abortion and pro-life or pro-choice, then we the people are stuck between choosing between those who are currently "the Establishment." That is, we do not see that there are more than two possibilities or that the two alleged possibilities are not mutually exclusive. I have said for years that I am both pro-choice and pro-life and the American people have been saying the same thing at least since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973! So, if there are only two possibilities then we must choose between those who claim to represent these two choices. Any other choice must be and is often called "the extreme." And the current Establishment, which is composed of Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals, survives and even prospers, and this despite the fact that it represents almost no one!
This would help explain why some of the loudest mouthed but least intelligent politicians get a lot of attention, e.g., Sarah Palin or Representative Bachmann [in today's NY Times]. They get this attention because it solidifies the illusion that politics is and should be divided between liberals and conservatives and between a liberal ideology and a conservative ideology, even though most Americans are not ideologically liberal or conservative. Most Americans could care less about what people like Sarah Palin or Keith Olberman say. They have other concerns. But then if the Establishment were to admit that these other concerns are more important than the concerns of the loud mouths they, the Establishment, would disappear in a heart beat.