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The Myth of the Political Middle

Sunday’s column described moderation as a myth. Coincidentally, Chronicle weekly columnist Cortney Stewart wrote a column that also published Sunday calling for the pendulum to swing back toward the middle away from the extremes.

On the surface, our two messages sound contradictory. Political discussions are inherently framed in the context of an ideological spectrum. Recognizing this, but more importantly, rejecting this framework is the single most important thing anyone can do to start discussing politics more openly without tension.

The reason this creates tension requires a bit of imaginative work to understand. What word do we use to describe our political beliefs? A spectrum. Most people will indicate this with a line.

This is a subtle, yet incredibly harmful, way to start thinking about politics because the mere structure of a line puts two ends of it at great distance from one another. Just this metaphorical concept of being further away from someone on an imaginary line is enough to cause tension.

If you don’t believe me, enter Elon Musk. The potential new owner of Twitter, though the deal is currently on hold, tweeted a Colin Wright cartoon that accompanies this column.

The person on this spectrum starts as a center-left ideologue but ends up a center-right one when a second person on the left sprints much further away. The years indicate 2008 as when the main person started center-left, 2012 when the second person on the left started sprinting further and 2021 when the main person wound up center-right, now being called a bigot by the person on the far-left.

Musk’s publicizing the cartoon sent Twitter into a tailspin of accusations that he is not a moderate or that the cartoon doesn’t show how far-right the spectrum has stretched in the same amount of time. It’s true that there are many problems with the artist rendering of what is happening.

The first problem with the cartoon is because of consistency bias. Past Concurrent columns have talked about different kinds of biases, the most commonly heard being confirmation bias, but consistency bias says that individuals will view themselves as staying static with a dynamic world changing around them, though this is hardly ever true. We as individuals change all the time.

Another one is the two labels that are on each end of the spectrum. These are liberal and conservative. People now use these terms interchangeably with Democrat and Republican although this is a relatively recent phenomenon in American politics.

As Cortney correctly points out, polarization used to be much less because within each party there were liberals and conservatives causing the two parties to have so much ideological overlap that they, at times in the 1950s-1970s, looked indistinguishable. Ezra Klein’s great book We We Are Polarized explores this topic in-depth and likely provided much of the source material Cortney cites.

What the cartoon and Cortney argue, though, is missing one key point. Political expression through labels is far more about identity than it is about reality.

Here’s the most controversial statement the Concurrent has ever made: Former President Donald Trump was not that conservative of a president. He consolidated executive power, such as in the case when he said “take the guns first, go through due process second,” and he added trillions of dollars to the national debt through tax cuts, the creation of new government entities like Space Force and covid relief funds.

Now my right flank is going to push back and say you can’t point to one quote as an example of who someone is or you can’t take necessary government action out of context while my left flank is going to say with dread: if Donald Trump wasn’t a conservative, then what does a conservative look like?

This is because we’re no longer talking about liberal or conservative on an ideological level; the discussion shifted to being that of an identity level. Many supervoters have entrenched what it should mean to be a conservative or a liberal as the sole deciding factor in who to support so politicians attempt to usurp that title regardless of how consistent their actions or beliefs are with the ideology.

Rejecting this idea is the first step toward recovery. We can view candidates through the lens of who they are as people rather than their strict adherence to an ideological stance which is more of a label used for political purposes than it is an ideological pledge.


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