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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: moderates

Purists are making allies an endangered species

Stephen H. Provost

Our polarized political tug-of-war has created an odd dichotomy in the middle. On one hand, more and more people are identifying as independents. On the other, these people “aren’t really all that independent,” as CNN wrote in a headline.

The percentage of voters identifying themselves as independents increased from 33 to 38 percent between 1994 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. This should have made the so-called “moderate middle” fertile ground for candidates in a general election. But it hasn’t. Instead, politicians have focused more and more about appeasing “the base” – those true believers at either end of the political spectrum.

These true believers, not surprisingly, are more engaged and motivated. Or, to use a term often employed by pundits, the base is “where the energy is.” In other words, people at the extremes are more likely to vote. A Pew poll in the fall of 2018 found that roughly 60 percent of party-affiliated voters said they voted; that compares to just 54 percent of Republican-leaning independents and 48 percent of Democratic leaners.

Because they don’t identify with one side or the other, independents don’t feel as though they have as big a stake in the game. Their concerns aren’t reflected in the shock-addicted media or acknowledged by either of the parties, so why bother? This attitude, however, creates a vicious circle: The less they vote, the less the parties will pay attention to them ... and they less relevant they’ll feel. More and more people feel ignored by the two parties, disengage, and see the parties confirm ignore them even more.

Instead of working together, the true believers are working from both sides to make gaps unbridgeable. Gender gaps, income gaps, gaps between faith and science, between urban and rural America. I could go on.

This hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been occurring over the course of years or even decades, propelled by a number of factors – many of which involve the fragmentation of how we communicate and our willingness to consider opposing views. Like prizefighters, we stay in our own corners (Fox or CNN, Breitbart or the Mother Jones) until it’s time to come out fighting. Then, the Marquess of Queensbury Rules be damned. The transformation from civil society to MMA-style social brawl has been insidious, like a boiling frog.

Those who insist on staying in the middle don’t matter.

This is why the power of “the base” is ascendant even as independents have become the largest segment of voters. It’s why Mr. Trump continues to target his ultra-conservative base, rather than worrying about how independents view him. They don’t matter, because they’re less likely to vote, anyway. And the more they feel marginalized, the higher the chances Trump will win re-election.

But the principle is in play on the left, as well, where intra-party feuding is rampant and political “purity” is reinforced by voter shaming and a series of litmus tests not all that different from NRA ratings an anti-tax pledges on the right. The latter can be traced to George H.W. Bush’s act of reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge. But instead of realizing how badly such pledges boxed them in, Republicans decided to make more of them and be sure they kept them, regardless of whether they were a good idea.

Their willingness to do so helped plant the seeds of the political purity movement we see today, and the resulting trend toward the extremes has been fairly well documented in the political realm.

Disaffected

What hasn’t been mentioned much is that the same dynamic is occurring socially. As with politics, tension has arisen between issues and identity. Many of those issues, indeed, are common to both the social and political realms, but social identities are different, and often less fluid, than political identities, which makes the social dynamic even more treacherous for those in the middle.

A Democrat can always re-register as “decline to state” (in California) or with a different party, and some states, such as Virginia, don’t even offer party registration.

Social identities, by contrast, aren’t that easy to change. Some of them – race, sexual orientation and, to a slightly lesser extent, gender – don’t offer any wiggle room at all. You were born with it, and that’s what you are. It’s slightly less difficult to escape class-based identities, but it’s still no easy task: Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods have a built-in head start on obtaining a good education, making white-collar job connections, and so forth.

It’s no coincidence that the economic middle has been growing less relevant, too (although, unlike the disaffected political middle, it’s shrinking, not growing). Political decisions affect economic realities and reinforce social constructs. So, as the political and economic middles become less relevant, the same thing is happening socially.

The rise of social “purity” on the right has led to a resurgence of newly emboldened white supremacists, nationalists and religious bigots. On the left, it’s led to censorship and political correctness, the free exchange of ideas be damned. The people left out of this are, socially as well as politically, the middle-grounders: the people who want to think for themselves and reserve the right to disagree, on occasion, with those they most often support.

The concept of a “loyal opposition” has gone down the toilet. Either you’re loyal or you are the opposition. That’s Trump’s mantra, to be sure, but the same principle is being invoked, only slightly less explicitly, on the left.

Allies go home

The shrinking social middle consists largely of allies: People who may not belong to a certain group, but support that group as a matter of conscience or principle. Like those in the political middle, they don’t – or can’t – identify with a given “side” in the culture wars, but they nonetheless agree that side should prevail. Maybe in most respects. Maybe in all. They are, however, not the social base. They’re not as personally invested in the struggle and, while they may believe in it, they’re often not as motivated to fight tooth and nail for it.

Plus, many have an aversion to following anything blindly. Even if they agree with most of the actions a group espouses, they reserve the right to think for themselves and politely disagree if they prefer a different course of action.

Increasingly, however, such politeness is met with skepticism and derision. Members of the social base have adopted a motto of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” They don’t trust independent allies because they don’t appear to be “all in” for the cause, whether that cause be racial justice, gender equity, LGTBQI rights, or raising the minimum wage. If they disagree occasionally, it’s seen as a red flag that they might not really believe in anything the group stands for. Disagreement is viewed as evidence they’re (at best) slaves to some subconscious social conditioning or (at worst) posers out to infiltrate the movement.

Some question whether a white male can ever really truly be all-in on gender equity or racial equality; whether a cisgender person be all-in on transgender rights; whether a person oriented toward the opposite sex be all-in on LGBTQI rights. There’s always going to be some underlying lack of understanding or potential conflict of interest when the rubber meets the road, or so the purists fear.

Disengaging

If you’re a social ally in the middle and your motives are repeatedly questioned, you’re likely to do exactly what political independents do: Disengage. If you feel shamed for your identity, you’re apt to withdraw. Race, gender and sexual orientation aren’t like political parties; you can’t simply reregister at the drop of a hat. So, you’re left feeling as though you don’t really belong anywhere. You can’t abandon your identity, but you won’t abandon your principles, and that tension isn’t something most people care to live with for long.

It didn’t exist, at least not to this extent, 20 years ago, but social purity tests have poisoned the well, just as surely as political polarization has proven toxic to government. (Lawmakers willing to forge alliances by working across the aisle are all but extinct, thanks to demands for political purity.) In the current environment, many allies become silent supporters, voting their conscience at the ballot box but otherwise keeping their mouths shut in order to avoid taking fire from both sides. They turn their attention elsewhere – to places where they feel like they are relevant: their families, their jobs, pastimes they enjoy. Places where they’re appreciated and feel like they can make a difference.

Political independents are checking out in droves for the very same reasons.

In alienating the social and political middle, extremists are accomplishing their ultimate goal: to create an atmosphere of social and political tyranny ruled by bigotry, censorship and intolerance. It’s the antithesis of what the founders sought to enshrine in the Constitution: a free exchange of ideas that acts as a crucible for progress and innovation.

So much for the American dream. In alienating independents and silencing the middle, we’re killing it. It’s dying from the inside out.

What if we could vote "no" on candidates?

Stephen H. Provost

I want to vote "no" this election.

Not “none of the above.” This is different: I want to be able to actually vote against candidates I don’t like.

The cold, hard truth is there are a lot more politicians I don’t want elected than candidates I can get excited about, and I’m guessing you might feel the same way.

Sure, we can put photos of them dartboards and engage in some friendly target practice, and we can squawk about them on social media. But what if we had an actual, tangible way to express our displeasure  not by voting for some other candidate we might consider the lesser of two or more evils, but by casting a vote directly against that vile carpetbagger, commie or corporate crony we so despise?

Think of the satisfaction! We bemoan the lack of voter participation, yet just imagine how many more people might come to the polls to bury Caesar (under a mountain of “you suck!” chads) than to praise him.

ONE PERSON, TWO VOTES?

Pollsters routinely measure both favorable and unfavorable ratings for candidates. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to express those opinions at the ballot box?

What if voters got to vote twice: Once for the candidate they like, and once for the candidate they wouldn’t want to see in office before hell freezes over or a Led Zeppelin reunion tour  whichever comes second. (If I were a betting man, I’d put money on permafrost in hell over “Stairway to Heaven.”) Each vote would count equally, so you’d subtract the nays from the ayes to arrive at a net score. Imagine if the winner got 3 net votes instead of 3,000 or 3 million. We wouldn’t hear much talk of a mandate then!

Well, maybe we would. These are politicians we’re talking about.

If we wanted things to get even crazier, we could treat candidates like ballot propositions and vote "yes" or "no" on every one of them!

One complication: We’d have to change “one man, one vote” to “one man, two votes.”

So, as an alternative, we could retain the single vote  but give voters the choice of whether to vote for one candidate or against another?

RELEVANT AGAIN

Either way, the system would likely be a boon to two kinds of politician: moderates (aka centrists) and third-party candidates.

With radicals and true believers on both sides voting against their opposite numbers, the vast American center that’s often drowned out by all the shouting from the extremes might be able to gain a little clout by staying quiet. Third-party candidates would benefit, too, from flying under the radar (which they’re often very good at, despite their aspirations to the contrary.) A modest number of positive votes coupled with almost no negatives might just be enough to win it.

Would such a system result in more positive campaigning, because fewer candidates would want to risk getting too many “no” votes? Or would it give rise to even more vicious smear campaigns against the candidate viewed as the greatest threat?

Those are interesting questions.

CONSEQUENCES

Either way, candidates would have to think even more strategically than they do now, which could be even more fun to watch for political rubberneckers than it is now. We might as well post a traffic sign that reads “Warning: political pileup ahead.” For those who view politics as blood sport, this would be more fun than a trip to the Roman Colosseum in its heyday.

We voters would have to cogitate a little more, too. Do we vote for the candidate we like most or against the candidate we fear most? Or do we vote against someone else because that would be the biggest help to our favored candidate or party?

Delicious, isn’t it? There are all sorts of permutations and possible scenarios to consider.

I’ll leave you to consider the possibilities … and to wonder if this is a serious proposal or whether it’s all just tongue in cheek.

Sorry, but I’m not going to tell you. Instead, I’ll leave you with the same piece of advice that’s given to voters every time they enter the voting booth: You decide.