(This was originally published in two parts.)
One of the things I appreciate about social media sites like Twitter and Facebook is that they expose me to many things that I might otherwise miss. Usually, these items are posted by the people and organizations I follow, but every once in a great while I actually see a relevant and interesting advertisement. The other day, for example, my eye was caught by an ad on Facebook.
“Click ‘Like’ if you are tired of the gridlock in Washington, DC!” it said.
Well, heck, who’s not tired of that? But before reflexively clicking the link, I thought maybe I should check out the sponsoring organization, which was identified as “Center Forward.”
After a bit of digging, I found that the organization was connected with the so-called “Blue Dogs,” the more fiscally conservative wing of the Democratic Party, whose presence and influence in Congress have been shrinking of late. As you might expect, their chosen issues and approaches have a narrow range and a very business-friendly emphasis.
There have been many organizations like this cropping up over the past few years, ever since Ross Perot’s Reform Party knocked the system into such a tizzy back in 1992. Such organizations try, with varying degrees of success, to leverage America’s disillusionment and disgust with the present state of political discourse by rallying folks around something they call “the center.”
For example, consider the statement that tops Center Forward’s website:
“America is neither right nor left. Republican nor Democrat. Red nor blue. The solutions that will move us forward come from where they always have—the center.”
But what, or where, exactly, is that “center”? If you think of it as just “the middle of the road,” some position taken up between two extremes, then your definition is going to vary depending on how wide you think that “road” is.
There’s an interesting concept called the “Overton Window,” which describes the range of politically acceptable discourse at any given time. Conservatives have been very successful over the past half-century or so at moving that window to the right, and making it narrower and narrower. So for an outfit like Center Forward, “center” means the center of a fairly restricted set of possibilities.
(And by the way, as far as the “neither right nor left, Republican nor Democrat, red nor blue” part goes, that’s patently false. It’s not that America is “neither one nor the other:” it is, in fact, both. That’s the reality of the situation—and the problem—and the opportunity.)
For some, this elusive center presents an opportunity – and their search is motivated by a sense that there might be advantage to be gained by formulating an attractive vision of a unifying, centrist politics. They calculate that the right person, with the right set of “non-partisan” positions, might be able to leverage people’s frustrations with business-as-usual and draw a strong following.
For others, perhaps less cynical, the motivation comes from a perception that the increasing polarization of our political system truly has made progress impossible, and stymied meaningful action on the many issues that confront us.
This center, one supposes, would represent some kind of “middle ground” along the left/right spectrum, some place where enough people of good will from different sides could coalesce to reclaim power from the “extremes.”
But even if such a point of view could be coherently put forward, it would not transcend our divisions – it would only add another player to the practical and philosophical conflicts we have, Entrenched partisans, from force of habit if nothing else, would resist what they would see as betrayals of their deeply-held principles.
We are an increasingly diverse nation, and I believe that when democracy is allowed to function properly, solutions can be crafted even from that diversity – because of it, not in spite of it. Maybe we can and should go deeper. Maybe we can think in terms of our core values, our common interests, our shared goals. The Constitution, after all, begins with a specific list of defining purposes: “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Remember? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to agree on what some of those words even mean, much less how to implement them in practice. But thinking in such terms might move us away from ideological wrangling and closer to actual communication and productive cooperation – closer to a government that is more inclusive and more diverse – closer to a government where everyone feels that they have both a voice and a stake.
For that to happen – for a government to truly be a government of “all the people,” then it must be rooted in a different kind of “center.”
This center is not simply a matter of compromise, or a mere averaging of extremes in the hopes of minimizing overall dissatisfaction. This center would appeal, not to our “lowest common denominators,” but rather to our “greatest common factors.”
It would not be the middle of the road – it would be the ground upon which the road is built.
I am speaking here of “center” in a sense that is familiar, as a matter of personal experience, to martial artists and meditators, potters and performers. It is a place of internal stillness even when one is in motion, of focused calm even in the midst of chaos. When one is in contact with this center, one is able to respond to the requirements of the moment with minimal yet perfectly appropriate effort. “The centered state,” says aikido master Thomas Crum in his excellent book The Magic of Conflict, “is simple, natural, and powerful.” It is a state of heightened awareness, of insightful perception, of profound integration of body, mind, and spirit.
Now consider: what would it mean to govern from such a state – or to have a government that was not centralized, or even centrist, but truly, deeply centered.
Such a government would not be rigidly bound by ideology, but would be flexible and fluid. It would respond quickly, but not reflexively; it would not be easily swayed by fear, anger, or panic. It would not be monolithic, mind you – it would be broad-based and inclusive, but have effective and efficient decision-making mechanisms for identifying and balancing the various needs and interests of the different parts of society. It would able to apply the right kinds of action to the particular situation at hand, whether such action might be labeled “liberal” or “conservative.”
Best of all: beginning the creation of such a government does not have to wait for the establishment of a new party, or the issuance of a think tank proposal.
It begins when we find where the true center is: within ourselves.