In the wake of the debacle of the confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh and the ensuing feverish jockeying for position in the upcoming midterm elections, it is easy to despair about the extreme polarization of American politics. To despair is to be unable to see any possibilities for an alternative or an escape from our condition. More than one person has mentioned the 1850’s to me as an apt analogy for our age. It can seem as if the differences are so great – and the built-up animus so large – that the country could become ungovernable.
So it is something of a relief to turn to a new study that suggests quite a different picture. In this study, the researchers propose a typology that places the substantial majority of Americans in what they call “the exhausted middle,” between a small phalanx of “progressive activists” and a somewhat larger majority of “traditional” or “devoted conservatives.” While those in the middle types do hold differing views on particular policy questions, what is most striking is their willingness to seek compromise. One could, of course, suggest that their “ideological flexibility” suggests a muddledness, but what seems more likely is that they combine a sense that many social problems require pragmatic solutions with a recognition that others (presumably of good will) hold somewhat different views, and so they cannot expect to get everything they want. The researchers call these groups “exhausted” because they generally find the pitched battles of political headlines do not seem to include people representing their view. Instead – as one report on the study suggests – most media sources frame everything conflictually and rely on sources that seek to amplify that conflict. (It’s probably also important to note that minorities are more likely to be in the exhausted middle, and that it is the extreme groups on both ends that tend to be the most white.)
So if this is true, why doesn’t our political system generate candidates that represent these views? One could speculate about multiple reasons, though I am tempted to say that it is because elites – in terms of wealth, but also in terms of powerful social institutions, including the parties themselves – tend to be motivated by and respond to strong ideological appeals. But at the same time, I think it’s important to suggest that there are leaders like this – most obviously, state governors. My neighbors in heavily-blue Maryland are poised to re-elect their very popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, by a large margin. Despite running against Democrat Ben Jealous, an excellent, successful former head of the NAACP who has run a good campaign in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Hogan is cruising to victory. Hogan has governed as a non-ideological problem-solver, functioning as a brake on the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, while maintaining good relations with them. By all accounts, Republican Charlie Baker is in the same position in deep-blue Massachusetts, maintaining 20%+ leads in polls. And other governors seemed to have followed similar formulas. In California, Jerry Brown took office in a state that many feared was ungovernable, and has created a success story, in part because he governed as his own man, resisting some of the extreme tendencies of the state’s unions and activist groups, especially in terms of fiscal responsibility. Insiders express worry that the election of a less-independent-minded successor may spell trouble. Minnesota seems likely to elect Tim Walz by a substantial margin, a US House Democrat from a red southern mostly rural district, who gained the nomination despite resistance from the progressives of the Twin Cities. These figures are, of course, genuine representatives of a party. Hogan is a pro-business businessman; Brown has made California a world leader in environmental initiatives. But they also eschew – sometimes explicitly – the extremes of their own party. Brown has done so especially by being fiscal responsibility, and Hogan has frequently distanced himself from the divisive identity tweets of the President – not simply politically, but because it’s obvious that they simply don’t represent Hogan’s worldview.
If there’s a theological lesson to be learned from all this, it’s perhaps the importance of realizing that politics is not all-important. For various reasons, from rapidly secularizing American demographics to the God-and-country alliance forged by conservatives, our national politics has become virtually a religion to many. It is all-important, and so being right is an absolute necessity. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic with her typically-insightful view on religion, it is especially younger progressives for whom “politics is the new religion.” To be fair, this is to some extent a reaction against a long-standing tendency on the right to identify God and the Republican party line too closely. However, here is certainly a case where two wrongs do not make a right.
It’s probably easier, on the state level, to escape that idolatry, simply because no one thinks the politics of any state is all-important. But the reality is that most Americans don’t view national politics as all-important, either. In a different recent study, on which I commented earlier, Pew asked people to identify the importance of various aspects of meaning in their lives – from “extremely” to “not important.” Then they asked, of all the things identified as “extremely important,” which would be viewed as the most important. A full 40% chose relationships with family, another 20% their religious faith, with every other category in the single digits – indeed, the third place finisher was “pets,” with 6%. And “political causes”? A grand total of 1% identified them as the most important thing giving meaning to their lives. This gives new meaning, I think, to “the 1%.”