Who’s Afraid of a Centrist in American Politics?

When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 characterized small-town voters in Pennsylvania as embittered, gun-toting religious zealots, I thought, mistakenly, this candidate is toast. (Maybe that was the centrist in me talking).

I figured a lot of Christians would be offended. I figured responsible gun-owners would be offended. I believe in hindsight Obama actually helped lay some groundwork there for a subsequent presidential candidate to woo people who had been caricatured as well, frightened, dumb hillbillies. Trump refers to these folks as the “forgotten people.” The Obama slam is not forgotten:

“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In fact, seems a lot of liberals take that view today of anyone who is conservative. Well, I don’t think Trump fits that stereotype, yet he certainly knows how to harness the anger of the disrespected.

A term bandied about a lot lately is that our politics have become tribal. There is a lot of truth to that, but these tribes have limits. What if a tribe has say, 10 identifying attributes and you agree wholeheartedly on say seven of the positions, but disagree strongly with the others? You are a person with a country, but without a tribe.Are centrists still welcome in politics?

Others join their tribes, relieved to receive support from like-minded thinkers. You know the respective stereotypes about both liberals and conservatives and they are often supported in part by reality. If you are conservative, you must be anti-abortion and the reverse holds true: no upstanding liberal would be pro-life. The lines are drawn on gay marriage, prayer in schools and climate change, etc.

But, what about the “EcoRight”? (Yes, such a thing exists.) And, the Log Cabin Republicans, who are LGBT advocates? Are there Democrats who own guns for self-defense and hunting? What if you believe in fiscal conservatism, but it’s not happening in practice from the party that claims such a principle?

Tribes seem to stoke mob mentalities and rage. There is a lot of rage on display. A Republican state senator in Texas made sure to put this video from UT on his Facebook page with young conservatives having their pro-Kavanaugh signs shredded by other students, who were labeled a “leftist mob” by the young conservative who posted it. Then, of course, are the people at Trump rallies who menace the reporters in the press pool, at the president’s urging, or scream at a senator in an elevator. What if you don’t want to join a mob or a tribe? Is anyone allowed to be a centrist?

The tribes are inefficient and pointless when you consider that as many people are not politically affiliated as those who are. Perhaps this is one reason voter turnouts are relatively low; people who are not 100% with either tribe do not like the tribe’s candidates. Also, even if you are in a tribe and proudly so, what happens if you don’t want to toe the line on a particular issue? Are you voted off the island?

Yes, people have staked out partisan lines over the pending vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, to the point of absurdities. If any woman has been sexually abused, then he must be guilty of many assaults, or, conversely, because he is a good judge, we cannot acknowledge that his post-Blasey Ford testimony was intensely partisan and not a good look for a Supreme Court justice. Note: during the first round of hearings for this nomination, Sen. Ben Sasse correctly noted that it’s the fault of Congress that the Supreme Court is viewed as a partisan institution. His speech can be watched here and I highly commend it. (The Kavanaugh vote is a subject for a later blog.)

A natural question when trying to solve a problem is to reverse engineer – how did we get here? We could go back and point to events like Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America and its attendant disdain for the Clintons or people mocking Jimmy Carter for donning a cardigan for the malaise speech, which infuriated people for making America sound weak and effete. I remember the Thanksgiving after George W. Bush’s reelection, which a very liberal relative attributed to anti-gay sentiment. I thought that response was wacky. I attributed his reelection to people not wanting to switch horses midstream after the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Our polarization seems to be getting worse and it’s likely creating more and more candidates who position themselves as the archetype of the respective tribes. And, that I believe led to people voting against Hillary Clinton or against Donald Trump. We ought to have candidates that inspire respect and votes from either party. We need a truce on the Culture Wars. Let’s work toward what we actually agree on first and learn to like one another again. We will never agree on everything, but we can try to compromise on some things. I promise it will be more productive than what we have today.

The Sage Leopard