October of 2013 began reflecting poorly on the United States government. Far from a discrete moment of discord, though, this episode represents a microcosm of the broader epidemic of a nation immersed in binaryism. Analysis and thought have given way to knee-jerk support and opposition of people, parties, labels, and institutions.
In some ways, this results naturally from the nation being run by a two-party political system. At some point, each of the two major parties recognized the dual need to distinguish themselves against opponents in individual elections and to come together against a common foe once in political office, until the only response to left was right, and vice versa. Magnifying differences and entrenching them has polarized a country.
The result? The general population has followed its leaders to choose sides. According to Gallup polls, in the last 20 years we have gone from 43% of the population defining itself as “moderate” in 1992, to only 35% in 2011. Meanwhile, 40% are now either “very conservative” or “conservative,” while 21% are “very liberal” or “liberal.”
Given the movement from the middle to the edges, a convergence back toward the middle requires a revolution. Far from a call to arms or an en masse angry reaction, though, coming together requires a revolution of thought, a conscious group decision to progress toward the mean. Simple in theory, this will require hard work and a willingness to continue to identify and work toward common goals.
Looking closer to the poll numbers cited above, the “conservative” outnumber the “very conservative,” and the “liberal” outnumber the “very liberal,” by threefold. If “moderate” is defined by not falling in the extremes, then one could argue that moderates vastly outnumber those who define themselves on the edges. While some of this may simply represent people preferring not to see themselves as extremists, there remains plenty of room for the middle of the country to take the wheel.
Here, though, lies the difficulty. Moderate thought means bypassing labels and buzzwords to examine issues and ideas, to forego reactions and prejudices in favor of working toward solutions. Moderation does not mean eliminating opinions, but rather examining the reasons for them before fortifying, modifying, or discarding them. It means engaging not with straw men and ideological dividing lines, but with real people and real ideas.
Defining the Goals
The primary goal of this proposed revolution is respect. Agreement will come on some ideas and evade on others-and that is okay. We can disagree on how best to curb gun violence, how to address the health care crisis in our country, and most other social issues, so long as we approach the arguments with mutual respect. Different ideas do not make someone evil or stupid. Understanding this simple fact helps us realize that the premises and evidentiary bases that help form those ideas and opinions are worth examining. And bringing the mutual respect required to delve into the heart of these concepts allow us to better understand and address what matters to people.
Obstacles to Revolution
Unfortunately, examination is hard. Responding to labels and headlines requires little effort, and allows us to follow the leaders we choose. It allows 99 out of 100 senators to vote in favor of the Patriot Act because patriotism is good, and opposing it after an attack on our country is bad. It allows us to favor Affordable Care or oppose Socialized Medicine, without worrying about whether either phrase actually describes accurately the legislation to which the label is applied.
Further, revolution, by its very name, implies radicalism. Rising up to create a sea change within a nation hardly sounds like the work of moderates. And we have reached a pinnacle of leadership by stridency, where the loudest voices tend to attract the largest followings.
That said, most people dislike the strident. The nation seems to be snapping back from the dangerous games of our most recent manufactured crises and demanding cooperation. Will this yield dramatic change immediately? No. But incremental change, in measured steps on which common ground exists, itself represents a dramatic shift from years, spanning at least three presidencies, of gridlock and opposition for opposition’s sake.
What It All Means
Cooperation is not capitulation. Compromise does not mean giving in, and working together does not suggest weakness. A moderate revolution requires strength and hard work, two traits that most people value. It requires thought, examination, and willingness to look not at yes/no propositions, but how to improve our country. And given the current debacle, it is about damned time we give it a try.