I asked a couple of questions on Facebook: Does it occur to anyone that liberals are not all left wingers and conservatives are not all tea partiers? Anybody ever heard of center right and center left?
I got some interesting answers. Those who agree that centrists exist tended to believe they’re important, but boring. Doing the hard work of negotiating workable policies on important issues across the aisle, and within their own parties, is not headline grabbing stuff. Others didn’t care whether centrists exist or not because, for them it’s win or lose and take no prisoners. Good faith negotiation is for wimps. Some believe all the fun lies in lobbing vitriolic word grenades at anyone whom they tag as not on their side. It’s sport. The rarest, and often the loudest ranting, are subsets who have the notion that centrists are really wishy-washy, wannabe extremists, unwilling to take a public stand. They cannot conceive of a person on the center-left not being a raving Marxist, and anyone who is center-right must be an ignorant tea partying lunatic.
My guess is that centrists are the majority of voters and thought and opinion leaders. Perhaps they will be in the halls of congress once again. I hope so. I’m encouraged by thoughtful op-ed pieces in major national publications that tilt left and right, each calling attention to the destructiveness of political extremism. What we need are legislators, conservative and liberal, committed to working with each other toward public policy that will contribute to the commonweal. It’s hard work that doesn’t generate entertaining fireworks, and that’s a problem. The primary voting political base is energized by fireworks, not calm reasoned thinking.
The rural west, where I live, is conservative, but until recently it hasn’t been hard right doctrinaire. That changed with the advent of tea partiers, hysteria over second amendment rights, extreme forms of libertarianism, and associated conspiracy theories. But where did all that come from? My guess is right wing talk radio and Fox news channels, supplemented by social media. Yes, I know someone will add Koch brother type conspiracy to the mix, and they play a role, but only a role.
One of the great marketing triumphs of the 20th century was the creation of a product no one knew they needed or wanted, selling it so well that it became the standard against which all others were measured – Crest toothpaste. The marketing triumph of right wing extremism is something like that. It only needed a spark of ignition to move it out of the shadows into the light of mainstream politics. They got it with the election of a black president whose most powerful primary opponent was a pushy establishment woman.
Social media, once a bit player, has given a world wide platform to supporters on both extremes. The far right has mastered the art of using it far better, giving them an appearance of great numbers and the illusion of broad public support. What exactly have they mastered? It’s the art of addressing every issue with vitriolic belligerence, countering every response with insults and accusations, asserting opinion as fact while denigrating fact as opinion. Part of it they learned from talk radio. More of it, I think, they learned from reality t.v. shows where angry disrespect for one another is the normal way of talking. It’s become the fodder of entertainment, and an endorsement of the way in which one is supposed to respond to conflict.
It’s become so pervasive that it raises its ugly head even in non controversial matters. For example, a few days ago I posted, on two local Facebook news pages, a simple plea for greater voter turnout in local elections. While those who ‘liked’ it were in the majority, those who commented were insultingly combative with irrelevant rants about candidates, the local paper, government in general, gun rights, and their right to an opinion as an equal to any other opinion, facts be damned. Invitations to conversation were slammed with invective. Would they be so nasty if you met them for coffee? Probably not, but on social media, it’s not just OK, it’s they way one is expected to respond.
In such an environment, what’s the future of centrists? Can they again take, as it were, center stage? It think they can, but it won’t be easy. In my region, they must assiduously appeal to the broad majority. Trying to convince right wingers is a frustrating waste of time, so don’t do it. Ignore taunts about left wing socialism, and focus on real solutions to real problems. Be bold in supporting universal health care without apology. Be bold in recognizing the reality of climate change, and the need for environmental protection, without apology. Be bold in endorsing tax reform that can benefit economic growth while reigning in deficits. Be bold about a strong national defense without pandering to wasteful defense spending. Be bold when talking to the majority of voters about the failures of extreme libertarianism. Be bold about applying cautious, pragmatic measures of accountability to government programs. In other words, be unapologetic about being centrists. I tend toward the center-left, so that’s my preference, but center-right candidates and their supporters must be equally bold, rejecting any invitation to enter the mud pit of tea party ‘rassling’.
What about all those rabid far left wing socialists? There aren’t enough of them to fill a one room school, so forget about it.
Will it work? We shall see. In my opinion, Obi Wan Kenobi, it’s our only hope.