Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Middle Ground?

Commentary for Rural Route Today

I’ve been a friend of the editor of Rural Route Today for several decades, but we’ve never really discussed politics. When I mentioned that I had moved rightward, away from my liberal Democrat past, Robin was intrigued. She felt she was more in the center; she thought it was important to find some middle ground in this country or we’d be in big trouble. She was surprised that I could have anything in common with a bunch of right-wingers. I prefer “neo-conservative intellectuals” but never mind. (Although “neo-conservative” has become a vaguely anti-Semitic term of general opprobrium, I mean the word in its original Irving Kristol/Norman Podhoretz sense: a conservative who started life as a liberal.)

Robin’s concern with finding a middle ground has been reflected in the Presidential election; Obama, McCain and Huckabee have all campaigned to “reach across the aisle,” to unite the country with a new “bipartisan” leadership. In his rebuttal to the State of the Union address last month, Obama promised that—unlike Bush--when he was President the entire Congress would rise to applaud his speeches.

The call for consensus is an effective political tactic. How do you respond--I’m an extremist and I don’t believe in finding a consensus? But is it more than a tactic? Is there really a middle ground on the essential issues of the day? Is it meaningful to talk about “getting beyond partisan politics as usual” and “getting past all this blue state/red state” animosity?

Analysts describe three policy categories: social, economic and foreign. On social policy, opposing gun control, abortion and gay marriage would put you in the conservative camp; liberals support all three. On foreign policy, conservatives favor strong defense and a military response to terrorism; liberals call for defense cuts and dialogue with our friends and enemies. On economic policy, conservatives argue for lower taxes and small government; liberals believe that since government is the solution to problems, cutting taxes means cutting necessary government programs.

More specifically, Democrats believe that tax cuts favor the rich, that we need to raise taxes on the wealthy to give the less fortunate members of society a helping hand; Republicans believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy and benefit everyone.

One side believes that immigrants deserve a shot at a better life; the other side believes that people who enter the country illegally have broken the law and should not be provided taxpayer-funded services.

One side believes that global warming warrants the creation of a global legislative mechanism to control greenhouse gas emissions; the other believes that global warming is neither catastrophic nor man-made and that market forces should guide the creation of new energy sources. One side sees Armageddon and the other side sees a pretext to expand global governance.

One side believes that health care is a right that should be guaranteed by the government; the other fears the consequences of putting a multi-billion dollar industry under the control of the kind of bureaucrats who run the Department of Motor Vehicles.

One side believes that affirmative action is the only fair means to compensate the victims of our nation’s history of racism and slavery; the other believes that affirmative action itself prolongs racism by focusing on skin color.

One side believes that abortion is murder, the other believes a woman has the right to make choices about her own body.

One side thinks that if we promote energy conservation we need not defile our coastlines and the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge with drilling rigs; the other thinks that the risk of environmental damage is small compared with the benefits of developing domestic resources.

These examples present two clear and conflicting ideologies. I would not argue that there are only two possible choices on these issues, that compromise is always impossible. Our health care system is already a hybrid of government and private enterprise, and I certainly hope that we can find common ground to deal with immigration issues. My point is that there is nothing inherently superior about the middle ground between two strongly felt opinions—nor about a candidate who sides with liberals on some issues and conservatives on others. Getting a 100% conservative rating on economic issues and a 100% liberal rating on social policy doesn’t put you in the center of the political spectrum in any meaningful way.

The way I see it, in a democracy we argue our point of view and elect candidates who agree with us. The side that wins gets to implement its policies. Since no party ever gains complete control of government, it is necessary to compromise, but compromise is not necessarily a virtue; a secondary definition of the word is, “the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.” Legislative compromise is not the same as “putting our ideological differences behind us.” What’s wrong with ideological differences? How can we put them aside without compromising firmly held beliefs?

Certainly we can agree to avoid rude political speech like’s ad calling General David Petreus a traitor (“David Betray-us”). And the corresponding rude behavior on the far right… well, nothing comes to mind at the moment, although I’m sure that VPR listeners who don’t know where to find Rush Limbaugh on the dial would be happy to point out how hate-filled talk radio is.

Conservatives talk about a stool that is unstable without three conservative policy legs—John McCain being the unstable stool that some like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have tried to kick over. When Mitt Romney was in the race they had a valid point: conservatives should vote for the most conservative candidate. Since McCain is more conservative than either Obama or Hillary, it seems obvious that it is time for conservatives to support McCain.

Interestingly, calls for moderation seems to come mostly from the liberal side of the aisle. This isn’t because Democrats are by nature more moderate than those hate-filled talk radio conservatives; it’s just that liberals have defined the language. When Republicans adopt liberal positions, Democrats praise them as “moderate”; when Democrats take conservative positions, they are called “conservative Democrats” (conservative being a pejorative)—or a “traitorous anti-Christ” in the case of Joe Lieberman (also meant as a pejorative).

Obama’s call for centrism before the State of the Union came at the end of a list of specific policy initiatives, of which I agree with precisely none. He called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, nationalized health care, and higher taxes on the rich. He called the Surge a failure. Not exactly centrist positions. I don’t fault Obama—he is after all running for political office, and the strategy of positioning your candidacy above the fray is time-honored. But the only way he could unite the American electorate would be if everyone who disagrees with his liberal ideas gives up the debate and goes along with him. This is not about finding middle ground; it’s about ending the debate.

Personally, I enjoy the debate. I have no intention of compromising my extremist positions, but I don’t want to shut liberals up. Monday morning without James Carroll’s moonbat columns in the Boston Globe just wouldn’t be as much fun.