Centrism Will Not End Political Polarization

The polarization of our politics has made politics downright distasteful to many Americans.  It divides us to the point that many worry about “civil war.”  It leads many to tune out altogether.  It needs to be fixed.  The most common idea is a call for “centrism,” or perhaps a third party between the two poles.  It’s not surprising that a plurality of voters like the idea.  But these parties never work.  The reason is that any center, any third party aiming to be in the center, still defines itself in the two poles’ terms.  

An exemplary denunciation of extremism shows how “both” sides’ extremists distort reasonable issues, how they focus more on the other’s evils than on any real values.  This dominance of the extremes corrodes the American spirit.  But the critique does not assert that American spirit.  It still accepts that the political missions available to us are either Brand X or Brand Y, with only some hybrid XY as an alternative.  XY is attractive to people who are fatigued with the extremes.  Most likely, though, most would be OK with the moderates of one side or the other.  The problem is that the two sides have re-shaped the terrain in trench warfare.  Everyone eventually has to choose a side, or live in no man’s land. 

Americans see democracy in danger.  Many see polarization fueling that danger.  Fixing a danger requires a positive purpose, a coherent idea to which people can commit.  What we need is not a new party, not some middle path through the shell craters.  We need, in our diverse interests, to recast our public discourse to remind us that political poles are like moss on our bedrock common ground.  We need to put our overarching American identity above factional allegiances.   We need to name and assert an American spirit over the tropes of polarized left and right, in a mission that transcends them.

We regularly cite the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.  But we need to turn our founding creed – of personal rights that all hold and none could give away, and of government by consent of the governed – from a cliché into an affirmative purpose.  

Much of that conversion will come in acknowledging others’ claims rather than “fighting” for “mine” to overcome “theirs.”  That idea of fighting is the politicians’ tool to divide us, even as the various factions claim the same creed.   People live in the moment, and a concern that’s in one’s face often obscures principle.  But we have our creed and can build active commitment.  Americans don’t need another imposition of conscience, which will become politicized before long anyway.  We need to inspire all Americans by our creed together, to know that we all share its convictions, together.  

Without pretending to make the full case here, America’s founding creed is inspiring.  The Declaration’s self-evident truths sets the nation’s founding purpose, and created the first state whose authority is based on principle, of rights of the governed.  The signers renounced their ethnic traditions in the name of this principle.  In the new nation, ethnicity and tradition, the hands of the past, no longer define who we are.  As we live our lives, our choices, moment to moment, make us who we are, each of us and collectively.  In this definition, Americans live for the future as it emerges under our own hands.    

Our purpose as a nation is to show that that freedom, that personal agency that we hold as a people, is preserved and protected, and that we use it well.  When we see through the political postures, we see that any one of them is only one interpretation of this larger purpose.  We don’t need to tie ourselves to any of those postures, and anyone who favors a different interpretation aims, at bottom, to live by the same unalienable rights.  We don’t need the two factions, their demonization of the “other side,” or their manufactured trench warfare.  As we remember and feel that, polarization will dissipate, and its danger to democracy.


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