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Jewish World Review March 17, 2004 / 24 Adar, 5764

Dennis Byrne

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Here's why the ‘Political Middle’ is a national curse | For Republicans who find it hard to comprehend why Democratic hatred of President Bush is so visceral, all they have to think of is President Bill Clinton. Or better, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Four years ago, Democrats were wondering why anyone could be so obsessed with Clinton, so filled with loathing that they would risk rupturing the country by trying to drive him out of office. It was sure evidence that Republicans were "mean-spirited" and odious.

Now Democrats know. Whatever it is about Bush they find so galling, many are willing to nominate a presidential candidate not on his beliefs, experience or competence, but because he is Not Bush. So along comes John Kerry, apparently the best of the Not Bushes. Never mind that who he is is anyone's guess. More liberal than his fellow Massachusetts senator and liberal icon Ted Kennedy? Or a reed, ready to bend to the most expedient breeze?

Without waiting for the answer, though, the coming presidential election already is being adjudged the most divisive in memory. Both candidates, according to conventional wisdom, are preparing to "excite" their base. Pollster John Zogby, president of Zogby International, concludes that the "middle has disappeared." In what he calls an "Armageddon election," he predicts that each candidate will say: "It's the end of the world if the other guy wins." Thus the Silent Majority apparently has become the vast but Stifled Middle.

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I'm not so sure that the "rush to the middle," the popular strategic path to the presidency of recent vintage, now is a memory. And if it is, so what?

For all the bellyaching about there never being any "difference between the candidates," this election may be bracing in its presentation of two clearly different choices, especially in areas of national security, foreign policy, taxation, cultural values and the economy.

You remember "choice"? It is the highest of today's values, and if we must have it full blossom in our cultural life, our quality of life and in our reproductive life, then why should we be denied it in our political life?

When "diversity" is an ideal increasingly being installed into law and court decisions as society's ideal, why doesn't diversity in political opinion and intellectual discourse receive the same respect? Instead, disagreement in political discourse has been elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony. Those who stand by their principles and strong beliefs are the enemies of harmony. And, the irony is, those who don't harmonize must be banished.

Yes, some of us actually believe that the fashionable warning about "polarization" is a load of hogwash. To us, the beatification of the Political Middle is raw political strategy, designed to make your opponent appear loopy or even dangerous. Those who deify "moderation" reek of a certain intellectual snobbery and self-satisfaction. As if they are saying, "Thanks to us, democracy works. Thanks to us, reason reigns. We are the bulwark against those who would divide the country, not unite it. Thanks to us, the fruitcakes don't run things."

Of course, democracy requires consensus and compromise. George Washington was right when he warned that factions could have torn apart our infant republic. But an opposite and equal danger also threatens. Pragmatism. A growing political agnosticism insists that strong convictions are destructive of the political process. Expediency shoving aside moral and ethical convictions that propels a people toward the greater good.

Disagreement isn't the worst thing that can happen to our nation. Loyalty to the British crown once was considered to be the consensus position in the American colonies. Avoiding discord once meant not meddling with the "right" of someone to own slaves. Minding your own business once meant you don't get unpleasant in matters of civil rights. Every advance in American civilization was carried forward by discord, animosity and conflict. And discord, animosity and conflict stood in the way of every cockamamie scheme that would have done our nation great damage.

The alternatives are the Tweedles Dum and Dee. A cushiony, lukewarm middle where no feelings are hurt, no one is inspired by conviction and we are dead in our tracks.

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JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

02/24/04: When the public overrules the kingmakers
04/01/03: Getting zero credit on fighting a war

© 2004, Dennis Byrne