Some people opt out of this false binary. We typically refer to them as Independents, but it’s not a political party. It’s pretty much a catch-all for everyone who doesn’t belong to either of the two major parties. It encompasses a wide range of views spanning the spectrum from liberal to conservative and also includes those who are not engaged at all politically.
The political center sits at the nexus of these three categories, a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. It includes people who may lean in a particular direction or another, but may not completely align 100% with the political ideology of the two major parties. Some may identify as moderates, but it also includes people who are strategically centrist.
Criticism of the Middle
Public discourse is currently rife with criticism of those in the middle. They draw fire from both sides. “The insidious allegation that has crept into America’s political ego is that moderates lack principles. They seek only to split the difference between the positions taken by their noble opponents and adopt mediocre solutions. That is both wrong and dangerous.” (The Daily Beast, 2016). They are attacked for being weak, indecisive, and unwilling to commit. They are labelled “establishment,” and called DINOs and RINOs (Democrats/Republicans In Name Only).
It is important to understand the consequence of this narrative. These continued attacks push moderates further to the left or right, or disenfranchise them altogether. The net effect is that moderates and centrists are disappearing from our political landscape, enabling the rise of opportunistic extremists like Trump.
But what if I told you that the political middle serves a very different–and essential–function in American politics than the Left and Right? And by attacking and destroying them, we are putting the political stability of our country at risk?
Polarization and the Destruction of the Political Center
It’s well-documented that a critical objective of many disinformation campaigns is to polarize our country. Political polarization refers to the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes. This type of propaganda is “designed to enhance divisions among people and increase ‘the anger within each other.”
It’s the classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Push people to the political extremes, and in doing so, weaken or eliminate the middle altogether. So you have to ask yourself: Why would anyone want to destroy the political center? What critical role does the center play and what would someone gain by weakening it? What is gained by removing them from our political landscape?
To further complicate matters, as disinformation campaigns target the middle, Americans themselves become unwitting participants in this process. As an example, in the 2018 midterms, Heidi Heitkamp, a Senator representing North Dakota, was running for re-election. Heitkamp was a Democrat in a red state. Her opponent, Kevin Cramer, painted her as a liberal extremist, while many liberals, particularly on social media, painted her as a “DINO,” a Democrat in name only and therefore not worthy of support.
Heitkamp lost her seat. It’s now held by a far-right, pro-Trump Republican. A moderate replaced with an extremist. Which do you suppose would have been better for our country?
The Critical Role of the Middle
Think of our political landscape as an arch bridge. A bridge has three critical parts: abutments, the keystone, and all the pieces in between extending from the abutments and meeting in the middle at the keystone. The abutments are the endpoints of the bridge, the things that keep the bridge from falling outward. Politically, our abutments are our unifying values–the things holding us all together: patriotism, democracy, freedom. The keystone is literally the key to keeping the bridge together. Without it, the bridge collapses. This is our political center–the critical piece holding us all together. This keystone is the very thing that enemies of democracy are trying to destroy. Remove it and the whole thing falls apart.
In a healthy democracy, centrists are typically the deal makers, the negotiators, the diplomats. These roles demand unique skills. These are the people willing to come to the table and talk–and to listen. They work to find areas of common ground, areas where both sides are willing to give up or gain. Together, they build consensus and lead us towards solutions. It rarely leads to radical change, which might temporarily appease the Right or the Left, but is rarely permanent. Instead, it leads to incremental change, which tends to be more lasting. And importantly, it is a process requiring bipartisan engagement and leads to solutions with bipartisan support.
It’s alarming, then, to see the center disappearing from the American political landscape. When political polarization pushes people to the extremes, it necessarily pushes people out of the middle. A 2016 Pew Research study found that “the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has more than doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. Additionally, partisan animosity has more than doubled during this time. The efforts to polarize us are working. But we can push back.
We don’t have to be moderates ourselves, or even agree with them ideologically, to recognize the critical role they play in American politics. In fact, it’s quite possible to be extremely liberal (as I am) and still be a centrist, someone who sees the strategic value of the people in the middle of our ideological spectrum.
What we can do–and what I would argue we must do if we want to defeat Trump–is support the political center, or at the very least, not aid in destroying it. How can we do this? Choose to not be an unwitting participant in the process. Don’t attack moderates and centrists. Don’t amplify voices who do. Indeed, do the exact opposite: support them and lift them up. Be the person, arms raised, standing under the arch, holding the keystone in place. Be the person helping to hold the bridge together.
Political Polarization in the American Public
The Democratic Electorate Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate
Moderates and Centrists Are Mad as Hell at Both Parties