We humans have a pervasive need to impose simple structures on everything we involve ourselves with. Good and evil, black and white, right and wrong; all of these constructs intended to make our choices as simple as possible. In our feeble way, we mimic the design of nature; the immutable laws of nature don’t always give us the answers we like, but they are always there. Light itself, fits into a rigid construct, moving from infrared on the left to ultraviolet on the right. The light we see exists in the middle of that band; when it is passed through a prism, the spectrum of colors is revealed.
Ans so it is that we pass our political issues through a prism. Political scientists (and I use that term loosely), have determined an order to the spectrum. They sit in judgment on the issues and the politicians, carefully plotting the location of each within their simple structure. Left or right. For decades this construct has defined politics; totalitarian communism to the far left and totalitarian fascism to the far right. In the middle of the spectrum, the Republicans and Democrats, mercifully removed from the extremes. All the variables, oddities, brilliance, and ignorance of a rash of humanity boiled into one simple two-dimensional graphic.
This construct is, of course, a complete load of crap. And, to make the load smell worse, the political branders have stepped in to redefine the spectrum to fit their needs. Fascists and Communists are opposites in the political spectrum, but if you need to bash Democrats and your name is Jonah Goldberg, you can make the two ideological extremes the same. The political branders are also at work within the traditional areas of right and left. They carefully plot the issues, advertise the “correct” position, then define which politicians are “to the right” or “to the left” of the issues.
The original notion of liberal and conservative referred to how one interpreted the federal government’s power under the commerce clause of the Constitution. A liberal interpretation was originally pushed by railroad and mining concerns that formed our first truly national companies. Being a liberal meant that you supported the government’s responsibility to produce, through regulations and education, standard business conditions from sea to shining sea. Being a conservative meant that you thought those business regulations should be set by the states. Libertarianism was off the chart completely; they believe(d) in the absence of regulation. Somehow, these three points of view have been enshrined on the left to right spectrum of today’s politics.
This artificial and arbitrary labeling of issues in support of short term political gain is the death of democratic deliberation. Think of the contradictions that the construct forces on us. Liberals seem to want a deeper government involvement in health care, unless it involves abortion. Conservatives want the government to stay out of people’s lives, unless it involves something they perceive as a morality issue. It is the evolving tragedy of our times that these contradictions are the foundation for a political environment so toxic, that very little collaborative work is being done.
When we define someone as being right or left, and we turn the word “compromise” into a thing of evil, we permanently end the process of constructive problem solving. A friend and colleague recently wondered where the “middle” was in The Rational Middle; he, in good humor and fair commentary, suggested that this space was the middle of the left; maybe. I suppose that the title of this space refers to the middle ground of our debate. Not a compromise on policy in and of itself, but that place where parties striving against one another come to parley. When my friend and I worked together, our different backgrounds and points of view were merged as a potent tool for problem solving.
Rush Limbaugh, several years ago, tried to sell the point that “rugged individualism” was the heartbeat of our nation and her founders. While his distinctive voice intoning those words was compelling, the premise was utter garbage. In a phrase that served to wake up our little insurrection, Ben Franklin reminded his colleagues that “We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.” General Patton was clear about the importance of team. Individuality, he remarked, is a bunch of horse dung. The power of a diverse group of people, coming together to solve problems, is remarkable. Now, it is remarkably absent from our democracy. There is this notion that bills go the center to get watered down for passage. Perhaps we can redefine the center of our political debate as a place where ideas go to get stronger, and problems go to get solved.
The Rational Middle is listening…