The Death of the Political Middle

Death of the Political MiddleA friend shared this graphic about the U.S. House of Representatives and I have to say that although I was not surprised, I was disheartened. This was simply the confirmation of what I had intuited had happened in our federal government. I can guess what the same analysis would look like on a statehouse-by-statehouse level as well, given the nature of the bills introduced (and perhaps more importantly not introduced), and it isn’t pretty either.

A social scientist by training, however, I would show the same “picture” in a different way, however—as a shift from what approximated the “normal” curve to its inverse, which looks more like a “U.” And I would have reversed the picture horizontally, to reflect what we think of as “right” and “left” in political terms. Here is a pictorial representation of the normal bell curve.

normal curve with standard deviationsIn 1994, for instance, the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives looked more like this, with the most liberal Republican out near the +1 point (to the right) and the most conservative Democrat out near the -1 point (to the left). In the vernacular of the standard deviations of the normal curve, this means that the views of the representatives, irrespective of political party affiliation, fell in between. In another way of putting it, 68.2% of the representatives fell into what might be described as the “political middle.”

The rest of the crowd–namely the far-left Democrats and the hard right-wing Republicans made up the remaining 32.8%–16.4% toward the left fringe, 16.4% toward the right fringe. With influence from both fringes, the middle 68.2% found plenty of ground on which to agree, and we could depend on reason to intervene and do the hard work of ensuring that the general point of agreements, the bills introduced, included caveats that did not heavily favor one side over the other. To find a consensus and move forward, the job was relatively easy–each bill had to include as much protection for the realistic concerns of those who disagreed, whose positions fell on either side of the midpoint. There was, for the most part, respect, a fair hearing of the other perspective and dialogue and negotiation so that the result was as much of a win as possible for both sides. Those toward the middle kept the extremists on either side under control. The challenge then was the working out the details of how to handle those extraneous points of disagreement. What followed was the need to watch after implementation to make sure that the predicted positive impact expected was what was happening and to correct unintended negative consequences. Governing is project proposal and project management, theoretically approved or disapproved by the nation’s shareholders–the people.

inverted normal curve with standard deviations

Now, the U.S. House looks like this. The challenge now to productivity is that the central question being asked by both sides isn’t even the same. The abortion issue is a case in point. The question for wise people to work to answer as best they can is, “How can we honor life to the utmost as early as possible while preserving the personal liberty and opportunity guaranteed by our 1st Amendment to adult citizens?”

But no. Instead, there is the attempt to paint those who are pro-choice as anti-life as if those positions were the same, with no regard at all for the question of personal freedom and choice that is front and center when it comes to guns. And the reverse is true as well. I’m still waiting for those on the side of choice to stand up and acknowledge the evil perpetrated in the Pennsylvania abortion clinic once run by the infamous Kermit Gosnell. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, my point is made. Google it. But be prepared. It is NOT pretty.)

You can’t work out extraneous points of disagreement when there is no basic agreement in the first place to anchor the conversation around. There must be middle ground, hem and haw, ying and yang, forward progress together in a beneficial way for all of us. The focus must be one of “both, and” and not “either, or” because if there’s one thing we know for sure, the product of the dialogue of the diverse, especially of diverse opinions on issues that affect all of us directly or indirectly, is far better than that of one side or the other alone. In plain English, two heads are better than one–especially when the heads have different perspectives and ideas to contribute that the other side wouldn’t have been able to see in a million years.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and we did our damndest to prove him right 150 years ago. We’re still struggling with that same ill-advised perspective, the one in which no agreement was come to about the equal value of human life irrespective of color or any other personal characteristic. We’ve given voice to those on the fringe who believe that the solution to division is easy—that all you have to do is just destroy those who disagree with you—wipe them or their influence out, either through slander, libel, humiliation, or prison—if not literal murder. Thou shalt not bear false witness, says one of the Ten Commandments (or categories, as they Jews who started this actually think of them).

Inconveniently for those false-prophet-following Christians who’ve never bothered to actually read the Bible for themselves, Jesus himself was the person from whom President Lincoln borrowed the phrase. Matthew 12:25, for your reference: “And knowing their thoughts He said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” The “them” he referred to were the Pharisees who suggested that it was through Satan’s power that Jesus had healed a man. (Sounds a lot like some quick to invoke Hitler in reference to the President if you ask me.)

I would point out, too, that some 40 years after Jesus was crucified, his words came to fruition. One faction of Jews maintained that force was the way to overturn the Roman rule, while another—notably the followers of Jesus—understood that love and kindness was the only force that could not be overcome. The clash of these two divisions, ruled by those who favored force, ended in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and a diaspora of Jews that would send the whole lot into the farthest corners of the earth until 1948. We should take note of that. The Hebrews had been around a much longer time than we Americans have, and it didn’t help them a bit.

We are in a dangerous place, indeed, except for the fact that for now, the people—us—have the ability to remove from office those snakes who are creating and sustaining the divide, all with the power of our votes. Despite what the media and the political operatives would have us think, I still believe that the majority of citizens of the U.S. still look like that normal curve when it comes to their willingness to find and live according to that middle ground. But we have to move and we have to move now.

So, I ask you to join me in the next year in doing a lot of listening and not so much talking. No matter which political party you lean toward from the center, listen to what the candidates say. Pay attention to the “true colors” that reveal themselves. Be prepared to vote them out of office, even if it means voting across the party lines. Whether they’re talking about the primaries or their opponents in the general election, when you hear them bash, not the ideas of the others about how to achieve what we need to, but the others themselves, mark them off your list, once and for all. Hold their feet to the fire, because if they’ll screw those they’re supposed to agree with, they’ll screw you too. All you have to do is accidentally end up with an opinion on the other end of an inverted normal curve.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Mark my words. And then again, don’t mark my words. Mark Jesus’s words. And Lincoln’s. Because an American diaspora is not inconceivable. And for this once-proud-to-be-an-American, Ireland is suddenly looking better and better.

We can do this.


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