Stuck in the Middle with You?
As a common ground-seeking, politically independent person, I feel increasingly alone when I read about politics on social media, or God forbid dare to turn on the tube and watch cable news. “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am — stuck in the middle…” Yup — that’s me!
Recently, while walking with a dear friend, our conversation hit some of what is my problem with the idea of two warring political parties and staunch supporters in each camp. She said:
“Americans don’t respond to compromise and debate! We are the people of revolution — for things to change here, we need blood in the streets!”
I pipe up:
“No, we need to meet in the middle for any meaningful change to take place. Otherwise, no matter who wins, we leave too many people feeling excluded. Of course nobody gets everything they want that way.”
I look over to see my friend, who is eager to counter with her hands gesticulating to underscore her point:
“That is precisely my point. Who wants half of what they want? Nobody!
Now feeling quite fierce and bombastic myself, I counter:
“And that is why the political landscape here is in gridlock, and nothing ever really gets done long-term.”
My friend’s idea of a partial or total breakdown of the political establishment as the only way to bring about change is getting increasingly common among people on both the far right and far left.
I grew up in Denmark and lived there until I was twenty-seven. I have lived in the US for just as long and, as a dual citizen, I observe this American attitude of “all or nothing” with mixed feelings. Something about this brazen and self-assured unwaveringness attracts me, but I am also fearful of what motivates it.
Public sentiment in the US when one’s own party is in power is often expressed with glee-coupled gloat coupled with a desire to hold on to power no matter how. On the other side, among the vanquished party supporters, outraged despair and persistent protest underlie determined resistance at all cost.
Yesterday, I overheard a man comforting his wife who was quietly voicing her doubt in the current administration:
“Oh, but look, little by little we are getting rid of the Obama era legislation. We are winning!”
This way of thinking reveals a thought process that celebrates a system of governance that seeks to cancel out legislation from one administration to the next. It is almost as if it is as a matter of eradicating traces of a besieged enemy. It is not about evaluating what parts of current legislation can be improved and modified incrementally.
Consequently, the loudest parts of the US population are constantly on the virtual barricades. Squeezed between these vociferous camps are those of us in the middle.
We sometimes identify as “moderates,” and we are often vilified and projected on from both sides of the battling extremes. We feel like permanent hostages of both camps of strident converts.
Why does it have to be so contentious?
Other parliamentary systems consist of more than two political parties. In the country of my birth, there are twelve. In Denmark, therefore, policy-making has to be sought through negotiation and compromise. It is near impossible for any political party to hold the majority. A constant give-and-take is the lifeblood of Danish democracy.
As a result, the pendulum swings, but not as wildly. Many Danes see their political system much like the Danish weather: grey and boring. Still, eight out of ten Danes vote in elections, and they tend to view government and private enterprise as two entities that work together to bring out the best of both.
In the US, the two political parties, as well as government and private enterprise, are increasingly pitted against each other as polar opposites.
Debate is a full-contact sport, in which the winner takes all. This is exemplified in endless spins on identity politics expressed in topics such as gun control, climate change, abortion, government regulation, etc.
Suspicion and contentious comportment make compromise and common ground solutions near impossible. The unnegotiable, one-directional and unfaltering answers to every imaginable problem miss more than they catch, and do not invite understanding or collaboration.
What will happen to a country in which a sense of union is constantly undermined by a desire to fight?
It is certainly possible that the notion of change only being possible through blood in the streets is a self-fulfilling prophesy fueled by the idea that winning — getting everything on one’s own terms — is permeating popular perception.
It is the predominant reason that most Americans do not see the value of conciliatory attempts of compromise: debate and policy-making is seen as a battle of wills and a clash of ideologies rather than an exchange of ideas.
It seems forgotten that the legislative basis of the US was created through a coming together of varying thoughts and ideas; that viewpoints were scrutinized, contested, and modified; that the founding document, the Constitution, emerged as a result of compromises and workable solutions in the wake of vigorous, spirited, yet ultimately respectful and mutually beneficial debate.
What happens when we encourage politicians to battle rather than to negotiate?
People are more likely to seek out information that confirms what they already believe rather than search for new information. Facts and “relative believed facts” blur the line between truth and falsehood. Many have strong convictions and accept circular, dated, faith-or habit-based evidence as gospel to protect these beliefs.
Media, and particularly news media, become increasingly polarizing and polarized. Talking heads on Fox News make sure the Democratic representative’s viewpoint comes up untrustworthy. On MSNBC, the Republican pundit’s viewpoint is sure to sound irrational. This gives ratings: debate is a verbal boxing match in which predictably the “right” team (respectively) wins.
The electorate is viewed by politicians up for election as customers who need to be attracted by sales rhetoric and popular sentiments that are pre-vetted through data mining to resonate emotionally with their base. Fear mongering is used as an effective tool, and sensational statements give media coverage and good ratings. Facts and visionary (or even realistic) policy platforms become less important than making voters feel that the political candidate is “one of us.”
Due to sales pitches from politicians laced with empty promises to garner votes and limited success when elected, public distrust in politicians mounts. Cynicism and suspicion surround government as well as the entire political process. “Washington,” “Congress,” or “DC” are used increasingly as four-letter words synonymous with “inaction,” “ineptness,” or even “corruption.”
People feel disempowered; they feel that the system is rigged or ruled by diffuse, dishonest, and elusive powers. Apathy results: “it doesn’t matter who I vote for.”
There is increasing confusion about whether justice can be served. The judicial system is seen as corruptible. Oversight becomes politicized creating more doubt and distrust: the system is seen as broken on all levels.
For politicians on both the right and the left to attract funds (and thus voters), they must cooperate with outside groups and toe the lines of interest and lobby groups. Politicians who cross the aisle or offer critique of “their own” are either dead politically, or not up for reelection. Negotiating with the “other side” is a non-starter for fundraising and positive media coverage in most popular outlets.
Public town hall meetings or other discussion forums are shaped by partisan applause for one’s own rather than for willingness to understand why the people on the other side have arrived at their conclusions.
People fear those who are not like them. They stick to “their own.” A feeling of needing to “protect oneself” becomes primary. Here, in enclosed enclaves of like-minded tribes, viewpoints are cemented, confirmed, and elevated to law. This becomes a self-enforcing and self-perpetuating cycle.
Lack of willingness to engage with those outside of the tribe — the “us versus them” mindset — eventually becomes ingrained. It feeds extremism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, historical revisionism, etc. The risk of “blood in the streets,” revolution, violent uprising, or civil war increases.
The bottom line:
When we encourage provocative, popularity-driven political posturing, and refuse to seek the middle ground, we get our adrenaline pumping and feel entertained. But even if that is good for ratings, it unfortunately also closes off to mutually beneficial outcomes.
Blue state populations want to emulate the social democracies of northwestern Europe, yet forget that they are operating in a vastly different historical, social, and cultural context here in the US. People with red state sensibilities react by expressing longing for simpler times, but ignore the fact that the world outside the US is moving forward with or without them.
As a result, growing extremes on both sides seek cultural or biblical eschatological solutions.
On the left, frustration over current conditions mount and progressives vent their dreams of emigration as way out. Some evangelicals have had to cut a heel or discard a toe to fit in political virtual slippers. Frustrated with the state of affairs, they withdraw from the world to prepare for the second coming.
The majority, however, simply think of political outcomes as if they were lawsuits: “if my party wins — the ‘bad guys’ lose.” They seek to confirm their views as a matter of holding on to sanity in a world gone mad. They vote for politicians who make them feel that their values and causes are being addressed by conquering what the other side stands for.
As long as we reward politicians by voting them in when they act like gladiators, they will continue to behave like fighters rather than negotiators.
I like the principles of mediation. After a car accident, for instance, the goal of mediation is not to make either party feel like they won. Instead, it is considered a successful outcome when both parties share the pain: the victims might get less compensation than they hoped for and the insurance company may end up paying more than they would have liked.
Achieving mutual benefit in political negotiations based on such principles of give-and-take compromise is not sexy or ratings inducing. It does not give bragging rights. Both parties instead stretch out of their comfort zones to exemplify that a collaborative beneficial whole can benefit more than the power struggle between the parts.
In mediation, settlements have finite, conclusive outcomes. In politics, in civics, and in most other human relations, a compromise reached through such principles is not a destination, but a starting point from which new ideas can sprout. Getting “half of what you want” can result in something new and unexpected to emerge that furthers possibilities neither party imagined.
Doing this kind of tedious and incremental work that leaves the ego in the back seat and works for the common good, is the essence of public service. It has to be worked across the middle. The politicians who display understanding for others, coupled with a sincere willingness to compromise and collaborate, are the ones who get my vote.
They might not have the most media attention, and they are not the ones that yell the loudest.
It takes time to feel the consequences in politics. It is very much like turning an old ocean liner around: one must anticipate the icebergs and take action far in advance. To avoid Titanic consequences of our culturally encouraged stalwart desire on both sides to “stay the course,” it may be that throwing our support at politicians more skilled in the art of mediation can help us avert disaster.