Who do the hard left and hard right activists in the two major parties ignore? Most of us.
Think of politics as a tennis match. Those of us who are moderates are the net. The ball keeps getting slammed over our heads — and sometimes right into us — by partisans to our left and right.
Even though we represent two-thirds of voters, it doesn’t feel that way because partisans with strongly held beliefs soak up all the attention on the Internet, on television news shows, in newspapers and in book publishing. Even celebrities who speak up on politics almost always do so from a heavily ideological point of view. The exception is Bruce Springsteen, whose inspiring ode to the center was slammed by the New York Times as “jarring.” See what I mean?
In a recent column, Thomas B. Edsall writes, “(There is) data showing that there are large numbers of voters who say that neither party reflects their views; that many of the most polarizing issues — including gay rights, gender equality, abortion and racial equality — rank 19 to 52 points below voters’ top priorities, which are the economy, health care, jobs and Medicare; and that the share of voters who describe themselves as moderate has remained constant since 1974.”
On the same day that Edsall’s column appeared, as usual, I watched that evening’s PBS News Hour. About half of the hour-long broadcast was given over to two issues: sexual harassment in the military and reparations for slavery. Now, sexual harassment anywhere is a serious issue and reparations (while an awful idea) are a live political debate.
These were issues worth some coverage. But neither issue is near the top of the list for the bulk of Americans. The time PBS spent covering them was commensurate with the priorities of its audience of liberal elites, but not with most average voters. And even the New York Times‘ own media critic has warned that its coverage is skewing to cater to the passions of its affluent liberal readers, which tend to be about identity politics. So, Edsall’s point is easily confirmed by just flicking on the television on any given hour of the day or picking up any edition of a national newspaper.
Another observation in Edsall’s piece is that there are far fewer “cross cutters” than there used to be. That is, each party now pretty much requires that its politicians be absolutely consistent with the party line, even on unrelated issues. So, you can’t be a Republican if you’re for balanced budgets and lower taxes, but you’re also pro-choice and for gun control. You can’t be a Democrat if you want to fight climate change and raise the minimum wage, but you’re also concerned about deficit spending and you’re pro-life.
Any deviation from orthodoxy on any major issue makes you unacceptable to the party’s base of zealous true believers. That means that each party offers up only candidates who are absolutely “consistent” in their positions, even while most of the public mixes and matches its positions in ways that cross over from one party to another.
That leaves those of us in the middle exhausted by the arguments going back and forth, which seem so disconnected to the things we really care about, which are, it bears repeating, things like the economy, jobs and health care.
And here’s the big concern identified by Edsall: as a result, the vast political middle of America might just check out from the whole thing. With virtually nobody talking to them — or listening to them — they might just decide that there are more productive ways to spend their time then being engaged in civic life.
And so it can be a vicious cycle. Pols and pundits play to the boutique issues of their most ardent bases, which turns off moderates. The middle withdraws further, which leaves the field even more completely to the zealots. Which only pushes the most reasonable people even further to the sidelines. And so on.
The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that, more than ever, politics has become theatre. And theatre demands drama. Moderation and nuance don’t play well on TV or on social media, where getting your blood boiling is what sells. Moderates don’t usually take to the streets to demand reason and compromise. That would be immoderate. The trouble is that moderation makes for bad television.
And those who take “inconsistent” positions on issues just confuse the party faithful. A Democratic activist just can’t understand how a person can be both pro-union and pro-life, for example. Never mind that the two issues are totally unrelated. And, of course, they will punish the pol for the heretical position while giving him no credit for the orthodox one.
What’s the answer? Well, in a microscopic way, this little website, which is dedicated to moderation in all things. But there are lots of bigger organizations out there working on the same thing. You can check out the Resources page to learn more about them.
And it would be great if somebody with enough resources could rebuild a national news outlet committed to reason, balance, moderation and traditional journalistic practices, but also committed to covering the issues most Americans actually care about. Those outlets used to be PBS, NPR, CNN and the New York Times, but all of those organizations have now moved hard left. Much of what they decide is news is not resonating with the concerns of most Americans.
Let’s not give up on the middle. After all, that would be giving up on most of us.