Reviving the Political Middle Ground


Alexander Call, Staff Writer

Over the last few decades, American politics have become increasingly partisan. In the 1970s, for example, there were over 160 moderate Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill; today there are barely over 20. Over the same time period, Democrats moved from -0.31 to -0.38 left from the center, while Republicans performed a veritable pole vault from 0.25 to 0.51 right from the center. 

These figures are representative of a dangerous development within not only our politics but, on a more fundamental level, the society from which those politics stem. Put simply: the middle ground is dying. It is on life support and the plug is dangerously close to being pulled. But why, exactly, is this happening, why is it so important, and what is there to be done about it?

While there are many complex contributing factors to this trend, the most accepted explanation is that the rise of social media has led to an increasingly polarized population. This rampant polarization and declining goodwill manifest in many different ways (just ask anyone who’s ever been on Reddit), but it is by far the most prevalent in the world of politics. Aside from the very real social issues which arise from referring to half the U.S. population as woke, unpatriotic communists and the other half as uneducated, redneck gun lovers — check here for a more comprehensive discussion — we also see these perceptions manifest within the government itself and disrupt its fundamental functions. 

It has long been observed that high partisanship is counterproductive and slows down the political process; after all, when everybody hates each other and there’s no room for agreement, it becomes extremely difficult to get much of anything done. This can be seen on a legislative level, where 100% partisan cluster voting is commonplace and consistently prevents legislation from being passed. Moreover, accompanying this drastic inefficiency is an increased level of volatility; this has been put on display in recent years within the judicial branch, for example, as the most conservative Supreme Court in nearly a century has reflected this bias in a staggering 74% of its rulings, including such heavily divisive decisions as the overturning of Roe V. Wade. The battle for advantages in such a heavily divided system, clearly, has the potential to both stagnate and blow up at a moment’s notice. 

To form an analogy, we are seemingly moving towards the worst possible outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma: the state in which because all parties have prioritized their own self-interest above the collective good, practicing extremism over moderation, everybody loses. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What we are seeing right now is a fundamental deviation from the proper role of disagreement in our lives and our world. Make no mistake, disagreement is a good thing; it is the crux of a well-functioning political system. When people disagree, it opens the door to negotiation and compromise, which in turn allows everyone to come to a result where they are happy at best and can live with the decision at worst. 

And the middle ground, those 20 remaining voters who remain willing to make compromises and even vote against their party, is the breeding ground for this healthy, productive disagreement. It would not be so far off to say that the most important people in politics are not the left and right-wing champions—AOC and Ted Cruz, for example—but those who occupy some portion of this middle ground. They represent the last remaining remnant of what government should be: a place of negotiation. 

Yet despite its critical role, both in our politics and in our personal lives (no doubt, we could all do better with fewer discussions that devolve into arguments; fewer marriages crumbled by unresolved disagreements), there exists a marked social stigma surrounding the middle ground. There’s always the pressure to “just take a side!” when people don’t realize that the middle ground is a side, because neutrality and moderation are so often mistakenly equated with cowardice, and stubbornness with strength. This represents not only an unpleasant, tribal aspect of human nature but also a grossly oversimplified perception of how the world works. 

It’s time we start viewing the middle ground as a place of bravery because it takes true strength to go against the partisan herd — much more perhaps than staying fervent and immovable. And the good news is we still have the power to change. With every moderate vote; every compromise, whether between politicians, friends, or strangers on Reddit; every instance in which someone qualifies their opinion rather than selecting one of the preset options, we move a bit closer towards healthier politics, healthier social discourse, and a healthier world. 

And so, I ask you to be brave. Become part of the middle ground.