The Battered Middle Majority

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.

The two-thirds of Americans in the middle can feel like a tennis net, with partisan zealots pounding serves over them. Photo by Philip Justin Mamelic on

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.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “The Battered Middle Majority

  1. Mayor Dave, most social behaviors can be quantified and when plotted yield some sort of bell curve. Twenty years ago some jerk author published a sensational and rather racist book with that unfortunate title.

    As a former union leader, somebody once told me that the majority of members will show up only to vote on a contract proposal. Twenty-five percent are likely to show up to vote in a local union election. Ten percent of the members will will take some sort of active role at some point and only five percent of the membership will ever even try to step up and take some sort of leadership responsibility.

    I have been active in many organizations and found those percentages to be quite consistent across all those non-profits.

    Put those two sets of data together and it is not difficult to see why those with extreme views tend to dominate political life. The people who have grasped the reigns of the parties are those few with both the ideological passion and “need to lead.” The demise of the “fairness doctrine” means that the economic incentives to keep people fired up ensures that the far left and right have unassailable echo chambers to nourish intolerance.

    Only by changing the reward system that right now feeds ideological intolerance are we likely to bring back into civic life potential leaders who are results oriented and willing to seek win-win compromise — or any form of compromise for that matter. Unfortunately, that is why I have retreated into a niche where moderation and mutual respect can still further an important social goal


  2. If you’re going to be a media critic (everyone else is), maybe you should expand your sample size beyond one show. The issue most of us are concerned most about is covid. It has dominated the PBS NewsHour show (I watch it daily) in any given week, month or quarter in the last year.
    This battered middle bromide you continue to hammer is just not realistic. The president is not addressing gun violence and is going hard at covid. That’s the priority and occupies vast energy in government these days. The same is true for the governor. It’s just simply not as you like to cast it, an hour’s worth of public television programming notwithstanding.


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