Normal vs. Crazy

Did you catch the State of the Union address earlier this week? If so, congratulations—you’re part of an ever-shrinking cohort of Americans who still tunes in to this annual political tradition. And if you were looking for drama, it didn’t disappoint. There was Sen. Mitt Romney telling Rep. George Santos where to stick it, in his very polite Mormon sort of way. There was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene looking like a failed Iditarod contestant calling President Biden a liar. And there was a masterful moment when Biden got Republicans on the record defending Social Security and Medicare—after they feigned bewilderment over their own past assurances to abolish the popular programs.

As far as substance is concerned, there was markedly less. Sure, the president made the usual brag points about the improving economy, and he set up his 2024 run with an agenda he claimed is just getting started. Our personal favorite was his appeal to Congress for bipartisanship. In some ways they seemed anachronistic—a product of Biden’s long-ago Senate days, when he famously worked across the aisle in a way that just doesn’t happen much anymore. Yet, that’s exactly the problem: the stubborn inability of our lawmakers to conduct the country’s business in a democratic way is impeding national progress on multiple levels and holding us all back.

For anyone unsure of why partisan intransigence is such a problem, the Republican response to the SOTU made it painfully clear. Delivered by Arkansas’ new governor and Donald Trump’s former mouthpiece, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it was a whole lot of red meat to the far right. She railed against the “woke agenda” and “indoctrination,” and spoke fondly of her foreign travels with Trump, conveniently leaving out that he later lied about an election and sparked an insurrection. Pesky details.

But Sanders did drop one acutely poignant line. With apparently zero self-awareness, she said, “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy.” Yes, Sarah! We agree, even if our interpretation of who’s normal and who’s crazy is likely vastly different than hers. In fact, this very point is precisely why Center Street was founded. There are normal legislators on both sides…and there are crazies on both sides. We stand up for the normies, wherever they may be found.

“Both sides.” That’s become a problematic term over the last seven years or so, hasn’t it? It used to be understood by most Americans that Democrats and Republicans each had an extreme wing. It’s still true, but when the right fringe fully overtook the GOP with the ascension of Trumpism, extremism on the left suddenly looked almost quaint by comparison. UBI? Defund the police? Gender reassignment for kids? We’ll deal with all of those things later…we have a democracy to save from some red-hat-wearing nutjobs and their orange leader!

But are extremist Democrats really a thing? Well, yeah. A recent study by a team at Allegheny College found that a large proportion of Americans—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to support leaders who would violate democratic principles. The numbers are higher among Republicans, but Democrats aren’t far behind, and some may be motivated by an inferred need to keep pace with their right-wing counterparts.

As political consultant Douglas Schoen writes, “Ultimately, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of enabling the ascendance of extremism within their own party. The GOP has embraced harmful conspiracy theories about the Deep State and voter fraud, while Democrats have entertained socialism and adapted a class- and identity-based approach to politics.” And Democratic-leaning voters seem to be taking heed. The share who cite frustration with the party’s more moderate leaders as a major reason for why they do not more closely associate with the party has risen from 28% in 2016 to 40% currently, according to the Pew Research Center.

Perhaps an even bigger problem for the Democratic Party is its brand. A Third Way report indicates that the Democratic Party’s woes likely stem in part from a perception among voters that Democrats aren’t focused on the issues they care about most. Worse, even in the areas where Democrats are trusted more, it is not clear that voters believe in the Democrats’ approach or ability to get things done. Another worrisome sign for Democrats: the influential Blue Dog Coalition is getting chopped nearly in half after an internal blow-up over whether to rebrand the centrist Democratic group.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s similar to where Republicans were about 10 years ago. The GOP’s moderate 2012 presidential candidate lost to incumbent President Barack Obama, and the party was in disarray. The base was becoming increasingly agitated. The populist fringe that had first organized as the Tea Party picked up momentum. Republicans who operated as actual public servants—you know, within the boundaries of democratic norms—were branded RINOs and eventually run out of the party. And Trump swooped in to take advantage of the moment. The rest, as they say, is history.
We’re not dumping on Democrats in this piece. Far from it. We’re warning them: don’t think it can’t happen to you. With all of the attention rightly paid to the epidemic of political extremism on the American right in recent years, it’s easy to lose sight of what else may be brewing in your own house. As the unexpectedly inspirational Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointed out, the choice now is between normal and crazy. Democrats, please listen to your bipartisanship-loving president. For the sake of the nation, stick with the former.