As Americans follow their passions and ideologies to separate themselves along political lines, to revel in gut-satisfying derision for their rivals and to bask in feelings of moral superiority, something important is being missed: It is actually better to be in the middle.
By not taking sides, one is freed from the contempt one-siders often feel toward their fellow citizens. Untethered to either side, one is not tied down by groupthink and can explore creative and inclusive solutions to problems. In the middle, one is free to respect what each side feels is important. Blood pressure drops. It is easier to laugh. It is easier to smile at people on the street.
Some believe that only the ideologically rigid can bring about real change or prevent unwanted change; those in the middle must be wimps. But those who are considerate of both sides can guide the way to practical, lasting solutions. We need people who can do that, or we face endless enmity and the high cost of policy instability. Those in the middle can lead the country as a whole more readily than those whose ideological logic requires the vanquishment of their foes.
Let’s take a quick look at just a few of the issues of our day and how satisfying it is to view the arguments from the middle.
Environmentalism and climate change
Progressives appreciate that although the science is not perfect, there is a preponderance of evidence that carbon emissions are changing climate patterns in ways that challenge how and where humans live on the planet. New technologies offer substitutes to generating energy from fossil fuels. Transitioning away from fossil fuels even becomes a moral duty given the threats to life and livelihood that disproportionately affect the poor.
Conservatives point out that the internal combustion engine is probably the single most important invention in history for improving economic well-being. Before we pitch it, we’d better be darned sure that we have an affordable, dependable and timely replacement. Ditto electrical power generation from fossil fuels. Otherwise, we risk a plummeting standard of living which would lead to greater social and political problems.
In the middle, thoughtful research and problem-solving can include the concerns of both sides. Meanwhile, there are issues such as pollution abatement, recycling, and water and wildfire management that are not so politically charged. Cooperation in those areas can build trust that, in fact, we are all interested in a healthy living environment.
Progressives believe that America’s ideals require life to be fair for all who live here. Slavery in America, and subsequent discriminatory Jim Crow laws, were not only morally wrong, but deprived Black American families of monetary and educational legacies that enable children and grandchildren to live the American dream. Lingering beliefs about racial inferiority and superiority can only be rectified if there is awareness of the historical and current realities and a commitment to make concrete improvements.
Conservatives argue that America has come a long way in race relations, even to electing a Black president. Yes, there is more that needs to be done. But the real issue is not one’s skin color, it is whether one gets educated, works hard and perseveres to get ahead. Government mandated quotas and pushing money around while ignoring the real keys to success will only perpetuate feelings of resentment.
Folks in the middle seek to improve race relations not out of a sense of obligation, privilege or guilt but because diverse relationships enrich their lives. Easier said than done in a society still compartmentalized enough that for most people it takes effort to widen circles of acquaintance. But that is the secret sauce.
Conservatives observe that no immigration policy is meaningful if you do not have control of your borders. Those we choose to allow into our country should respect the laws, values and ways of living that they find here. If the people in the country do not have a common language and shared values, how are political, legal and educational systems supposed to work? We don’t want to undermine what has made America great.
Progressives recognize that we are an immigrant country. Everyone here, with the exception of Native Americans, enjoys an immigrant legacy. Those who come to the United States do so because they are attracted to life here, not because they want to change it. And their labor is important to our economic growth. Moreover, immigration policy must be humane. Our policy and practice reflects whether we can treat others as well as we treat our own.
Those in the middle enjoy sushi as well as cheeseburgers. They observe that the values that most immigrants bring with them — religious faith, willingness to work, desire to have kids — are things that reinforce traditional American values. Problem-solvers can fashion new, enduring immigration law that strikes a balance between all interests.
These characterizations of the issues are simplified; in the real world they are more complex — and more emotionally charged. But the point is that people in the middle can appreciate valid arguments on both sides. Indeed, they can understand controversial issues better than those who only focus on their side’s positions. Moreover, those in the middle can stand up for all their heartfelt values: Justice and compassion. Tradition and tolerance. Integrity and respect.
People in the middle are not handicapped by identifying each side by its extremes. Seeing conservatives as violent white supremacists is not fair nor accurate. Seeing progressives as lawless police defunders is not fair nor accurate. There are such, but they are small minorities. People in the middle can bring together reasonable, decent people on both sides.
When you are in the middle, you can take the long view. Too often conservatives and progressives focus only on the next political battle as the culmination of the conflict. But whoever wins the next election, or manages to get a bill passed, will still have to contest the one after that. Political opponents are not going to go away. From the middle, you can see that it is compromise, not vindication, that will produce enduring policy and keep our democracy from freezing up.
Not only is it better in the middle — better to see the issues more clearly, better to get along with our fellow citizens, better to play the peacemaker — but our country needs the middle. And we should encourage and support leaders courageous enough to stand there.
Robert Griffiths is an adjunct professor of political science at Brigham Young University.