These are tough times for the endangered species of Professional Centrists: pundits (and a shrinking cadre of politicians) who are deeply invested in the idea that deep investment in ideology is ruining the country; passionate advocates against passionate advocacy; a small and often self-righteous party of nonpartisans. They have a new piece of research evidence to bolster their case for a-plague-on-both-houses politics: a typology of Americans conducted by an international group called More in Common that is engaged in a worthy effort to tease out areas of political collaboration across the usual partisan and ideological lines.
Their latest handiwork, however, is dealt from a very stacked deck: it posits that various groups it labels “The Exhausted Majority” are being manipulated and even silenced by “The Wings,” which it identifies as Progressive Activists on the left and Devoted Conservatives (supplemented by Traditional Conservatives, who have come to resemble their hard-core allies) on the right. Together “The Wings” represent only a third of the population, but they control political discourse for the time being.
As you can imagine, this portrait of America is catnip to New York Times Columnist David Brooks, who undoubtedly sees “The Exhausted Majority” as forming a mass base for the revived centrist party of Latter-Day Whigs he wants.
The researchers asked a wide variety of questions, on everything from child-rearing to national anthem protests. In many cases, 97 to 99 percent of Progressive Activists said one thing and 93 to 95 percent of Dedicated Conservatives said the opposite. There’s little evidence of individual thought, just cult conformity. The current situation really does begin to look like the religious wars that ripped through Europe after the invention of the printing press, except that our religions now wear pagan political garb.
The good news is that once you get outside these two elite groups you find a lot more independent thinking and flexibility. This is not a 50-50 nation. It only appears that way when disenchanted voters are forced to choose between the two extreme cults.
You notice immediately that Brooks views strong beliefs as “cult conformity.” That is reminiscent of the viewpoint of many of the actual historic Whigs in the early nineteenth century, who considered opponents of and defenders of slavery as fanatics, and those who sought compromises over slavery as wise expositors of, well, independent thinking and flexibility. But Brooks considers mental or moral coherence a bad sign:
[P]eople in the exhausted majority have no narrative. They have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action. When they get one I suspect it will look totally unlike the two dominant narratives today. These narratives are threat narratives. But the people who make positive change usually focus on gifts, not deficits. They tell stories about the assets we have and how we can use them together.
An ex-Whig named Abraham Lincoln once described this sort of thinking as the impossible (and immoral) desire to maintain a country as half-slave and half-free.
I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
The desire for compromise above all things, and the associated refusal to make distinctions between those who feel strongly about their principles, is carried even further by another professional centrist, the Washington Post’s Charles Lane. He looks at the More in Common typology and seizes on a particularly telling sentiment common among the Exhausted Majority:
[W]e are, apparently, living among many millions of citizens who routinely lie or dissemble about their political opinions out of fear.
And what do they fear? Not necessarily government repression, the report suggests, but ridicule and harassment from their fellow citizens, which is often magnified by social media and can sometimes lead to trouble at school or work.
Large majorities of the public — 80 percent or more — see both hate speech and political correctness as problems plaguing American politics.
Ponder that argument for a moment: Americans are equally repressed by bigotry and efforts to prevent bigotry. Yes, of course, “political correctness” can go too far, but the idea that it’s morally equivalent to the ancient evils it exists to inhibit is as horrifying to me as the extremism Brooks and Lane fear. Some Americans feel repressed by “Happy Holidays” greetings that don’t reflect their particular faith tradition. The idea that this is as legitimate a concern as the desire to end millennia of actual persecution in the name of religion is morally obtuse.
The desire to compromise with evil in order to reduce conflict is as primordial as good and evil themselves. So is that the only alternative to total civic and political warfare that rends the nation for generations?
Not necessarily. People evolve as well. It’s reasonably well established that today’s era of intense ideological and partisan polarization stemmed initially from a radicalized conservative movement conquering one of our two major political parties, as part of a steadily building (and global) backlash against recent cultural, economic and demographic trends. If, as Barack Obama once publicly hoped, the “fever breaks” and the right adapts itself to some of those changes (e.g., racial and gender equality, acceptance of sexual minorities, a minimally egalitarian political and economic order) then we can have a robust but civil political competition that doesn’t feel like civil war. Many of today’s conservatives, unfortunately, would consider adjustment to a society in which equality is a value as fundamental as property rights or the traditional family as a full surrender–which is why they so proudly call themselves “politically incorrect.” And that’s why they must be fought in an uncompromising manner, even if that offends the sensibilities of those for whom denying “irrepressible conflict” is second nature. America has been trying to repress the conflict over equality for most of its history. It clearly has not worked.