Saturday, August 12, 2006

The muddled middle:

No, we can't all just get along

Why on earth, the Journal Sentinel wonders, can't we all just work things out?

Editorial writers, of course are the folks whose job it is to write, "One the one hand ... but on the other hand..."

They're the ones who come down from the hills after the battle and shoot the wounded, the late Murray Kempton said.

Sunday's JS editorial is a classic, making a case for what it calls the thoughtful middle."

What passes for political discourse these days is insult and invective. It is hard to argue with that. Things have gotten very shrill.

Even I, who once was called "the roving Ayatollah of Democratic politics," wouldn't mind a little milder tone sometimes.

Of course, I also would like to see a few more of those Republican attorney general debates, to tackle some of the unanswered questions from the last one, like what does Paul Bucher suck, exactly, and how does J.B. Van Hollen know?

Oops. There I go again.

Let me try to be serious for a moment, and feel free to slap me if I'm not.

It is one thing to say that the tone of the political debate has deteriorated and needs to be elevated. Who could argue against the idea that there should be more civility in politics? (Certainly not anyone who gets some of the comments and email I do.)

But is quite a stretch to go from that premise, as the JS does, to suggesting that Americans aren't really that far apart on most issues, and that if we all just came to some undefined common middle ground everything would work out just fine.

The evidence offered is less than compelling: A Pew Research survey showing that most people are not all liberal or all conservative on so-called social issues, but some combination. People may be liberal on some things, conservative on others, and in between the extremes sometimes.

That's not exactly a Eureka! moment. Then there's this:
The poll also found a clear majority - two out of three - who said they wanted a middle ground on the most divisive issue of all: abortion. Now, we don't know what that middle ground is, but the idea that Americans are tired of squabbling says something.
It's kind of a Rodney King moment. Can't we all just get along?

Not knowing what that middle ground is seems kind of important if you care about the abortion issue.

If you asked that question about a whole range of issues, you'd find that most people would, indeed, like to find a middle ground. Few people like conflict. Most would like to work it out. The devil, of course, is always in the details.

What would the middle ground be on the stem cell research issue? For Jim Doyle and Mark Green to agree that they support adult stem cell research, and will fund that, but won't allow any public money for embryonic stem cell research?

That's no compromise, although it sounds like one. It is Green's position, which would virtually wipe out the opportunity for Wisconsin researchers to do any meaningful stem cell research in this state. He would sign a bill to do that.

Yet the Pew poll cited tells us that 56% of respondents say it is more important to proceed with the research that might produce new cures, while 32% say it is more important to preserve the embryos.

There's a clear difference. And, as I say regularly -- stop me if you've heard this before -- campaigns are all about drawing distinctions.

That is how people decide who to vote for -- based on the differences between the candidates, not some "middle ground" where they agree.

That's why issues like stem cell research -- and abortion rights -- are issues in the governor's race. Green not only would sign the stem cell bill, but if he could, he would sign a bill to criminalize abortion in this state. That is hardly the middle ground.

It is the "thoughtful middle" that decides elections in Wisconsin. The Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, in most cases, each will get 40% or more of the vote from people who normally vote for their party. It's the remaining swing voters, perhaps 15% to 20% of the electorate at most, who decide the winner.

That's who the candidates are talking to.

Voters, like the editorial board, may wish the conversation were a little more genteel. But finely nuanced arguments are a bit difficult to convey in today's climate.

And the newspapers -- as you'll note from the coverage of the AG debate -- give their space and headlines to the most extreme statements. They don't devote a lot of column inches to candidate position papers; actually, they don't devote any. If a candidate wants to tell voters about an issue, his/her campaign is going to have to pay for it on TV, radio, print or mail.

The news media has given up its responsibility to dig into issues and present the facts. Their main function these days seems to be "He said, he said" reporting, where the back-and-forth is dutifully reported, but no effort is made to find out who's right. That kind of coverage, of course, encourages the inflammatory statements and news releases.

That, in turn, gives the editorial writers something to complain about.

I think this is where we came in.


At 10:12 PM, Blogger Dean said...

While disagreeing with some of your specific application, I agree with the basic premise, especially your analysis in the last few paragraphs.

Taking a look at your stem cell numbers 56+32=88 leaving 12% in the "thoughtful middle." Not many is there?

If you look at some of the past American elections, even back to the times of the founding fathers, you will find many decidedly contentious.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger Sven said...

Superbly written. Submit it as a guest editorial. :)

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Other Side said...

Very true, Dean. Some of the rhetoric from past elections, especially those of the early 1800s, makes today's over-the-top talk seem almost tame at times.

Though I don't think neocon or moonbat quite made their top ten.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Dean said...

Ha, no, Tim, they probably had other equally imaginative (unimaginative?) names.

Look at Bucher-Van Hollen. Even though they probably agree on 95% of stuff, passions can erupt. How much more when we disagree.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger krshorewood said...

Or this gets down to the false choices being offered by the news media. For example claiming there is an "arguement" over evolution or global warning in the scientific community when an overwhelming number of independent scientists agree that both of these exist or are largely proven.

At 8:03 PM, Blogger Mixter said...

Excellent piece.


At 10:09 PM, Blogger Louis Kaye said...

The idea that the middle are thoughtful is "hooey". The middle are generally weak thinkers who are afraid to take a stand out of fear of retribution, typically they stand for nothing. Politicians shouldn't have an agenda per se other than the Constitution and the security and welfare of the people. The republicans have their own agenda while Democrats popularly in that sense don't have one. Personally, I'm tired of people telling me its the person and not the party to justify their split party votes. I'm not saying Democrats are perfect, but they are the only resistance left to fight the self-serving politicians who have hijacked our country.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Kevin Ryan said...

Louis the hack said:

"The middle are generally weak thinkers who are afraid to take a stand out of fear of retribution, typically they stand for nothing."

Louis, we in the middle don't refuse to "take a stand" out of fear of retribution; we refuse to "take a stand" because we understand there is usually some truth to most sides of an argument.

Unlike you, we're not willing to be wrong just so we can feel better about ourselves for having "taken a stand".

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Louis Kaye said...

Thanks for the compliment..."we're not willing to be wrong just so we can feel better about ourselves for having taken a stand."
You are not willing to be wrong? Which also means you are never willing to take a stand for ever being right. No argument from me.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Third Eye said...

Wow, Xoff. Your rhetoric drives me up the wall half the time, but you really dazzled me with this piece. Congrats.

And Louis, you should know that those in the "thoughtful middle" are some of the toughest thinkers out there. Whereas most others will take the talking points of sources they generally agree with at face value, we make the effort to examine all sides of an issue looking for the truth. As Kevin said, we usually find some truth in each side's argument.

At 1:22 AM, Blogger Louis Kaye said...

Well of course you need to examine both sides, but at some point you need to take a stand. I'm not talking about negotiating a compromise, that has its place, but that is not my point. Standing in the middle trying to balance your political direction so you're never wrong is asking too much from yourself. It is nearly impossible if not conveniently indecisive, but of course you are at liberty to do as you damn well please.

Hillary Clinton for example drifted toward the center. She looked up to see which way the wind was blowing and decided to vote for the Bush war and a goofy flag amendment. Now the winds have changed, so she now changed course accordingly. I like Hillary, but I don't know where she really stands, she made a major mistake drifting to the center in my view. Others may like her more because she drifted.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Kevin Ryan said...

I figured you wouldn't get the point.

Being a centrist is not solely about straddling the political fence to please everyone. That's not the "get it right" I'm talking about.

It means looking at the problem and working to find the right answer, which sometimes will be the liberal answer, sometimes the conservative answer, and sometimes a combination of both.

Solving the problem instead of scoring political points. that is what I mean by "get it right".

People like you on the other hand look at a problem and ask, "What does my party and political philosophy say about it? - OK, I choose that side." regardless of whether your partisan solution would work or not.

See the post about this on my blog for a better explanation.

At 12:42 AM, Blogger Louis Kaye said...

This is a late response to Ryans last post. When I look at a problem, I come up with my own answer, and then look at which party is more closely aligned with my own philosophy. I have been fortunate that the Democratic party in all of its flaws, and it has many, shares my political views some of the time. I can't say that for Republicans at all, and I don't know where centrists stand on the issues. One centrist may be very different from another. So, I'll stand by the party, knowing they are not perfect. I can accept that. Their is a lot of gray area, but if someone gave you an ultimatum, to choose a party on a stranded island so to speak, which would you choose?


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