With the Biden-Harris team in the White House, Republicans and pundits are sanctimoniously insisting that “unity” requires “meeting in the middle.” The use of that term–“the middle”–reveals a significant misunderstanding of the definition of moderation and the process of compromise.
It also drives me nuts.
A friend recently reminded me of Jim Hightower’s observation that there’s nothing in the mIddle of the highway except a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.
What is “the middle” between belief in QAnon and adherence to the Constitution? What’s the “middle” between White Supremacy and effective civil rights protections? Between accurate reporting and propaganda? Between protecting the rich and feeding hungry children?
What, exactly, is this magic “middle”?
I have referred previously to the Overton Window. That window is the range of public policies that are widely acceptable to voters at a specific point in time. The window does shift–perhaps the most vivid recent example is same-sex marriage: thirty years ago, efforts to recognize such marriages were virtually unthinkable; today, a majority of Americans approve of them.
Shifts of the Overton window illustrate how our concepts of both the “middle” and what constitutes moderation change.
During my adult lifetime, the Republican Party has steadily moved to the right, pulling both the Democrats and “the middle” along with it. Today–and I do not intend this as hyperbole–the GOP is located somewhere between radically reactionary and insane. The fact that members of this incredibly retrograde party consider contemporary Democrats “far left” is meaningless–next to today’s GOP, my conservative grandmother would be far left. Political science research confirms that America’s most “left-wing” politicians are not nearly as “left” as most Europeans who fall into that category.
Which brings me back to the calls of well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) observers for “middle ground,” “bipartisanship,” “moderation” and “compromise. “
Bipartisanship can be achieved whenever members from both the GOP and the Democratic Party agree on a policy. The House vote to impeach Trump a second time was bipartisan, because ten Republicans voted yes. The term is simply descriptive, although it tends to be used to suggest that bipartisanship equates to virtue. It doesn’t. If members of both major parties voted to deprive Muslims of citizenship, the fact that the vote was bipartisan would not magically make it virtuous. Plenty of racist laws have been passed with bipartisan support.
Compromising requires good-faith negotiation over points of honest contention. For example, Biden is reportedly willing to compromise with lawmakers over his COVID package by acceding to (quite reasonable) requests that stimulus payments not go to high-income families. Compromise in order to make at least incremental progress on an issue–rather than intransigence preventing any progress at all– is usually positive, but if by “compromise” we mean the evisceration of a good policy in order to accomplish an empty victory, not so much.
It depends on the compromise.
Moderation is defined as the absence of extremism. Unfortunately, given how insane the GOP has become, most media outlets automatically label any Republican who isn’t a QAnon believer or Big Lie promoter a “moderate.” Her vote to impeach Trump was correct and even admirable, but it did not make Liz Cheney a moderate.
Bottom line: the search for a “middle ground” is only reasonable when the parties involved in a particular dispute are rational, intellectually honest and operating in good faith.
These current calls for middle ground, moderation and bipartisanship remind me of Rodney King’s famous plea: “can’t we all get along?” That desire to “get along”– to be generous and civil and non-confrontational– is incredibly appealing. It resonates because so much of our public life right now is so rancorous and ugly. Believe me, I understand where it comes from.
But permit me an analogy:
When your two-year old has a tantrum because he wants two cookies that he shouldn’t have, you don’t mollify him by finding “middle ground.” You don’t reward the outburst by giving him one cookie. Your obligation as a parent is to help him mature into an adult who understands that inappropriate behaviors will not get him even a portion of what he wants.
There are a lot of two-year-olds in today’s QOP, including most obviously the former President. The rest of us should tune out the screaming and crying and help the few who seem capable of it to grow up. “Meeting in the middle”–when the middle is halfway between sense and nonsense– is as bad for public policy as it is for parenting.
There’s a reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists.