In divided times, it is tempting to reach toward balance as a salve and a solution.
Democrats and Republicans hate each other more than ever and pundits bicker even more bitterly. But Democrat voters can be friends and family with Republican voters. The local truth seems like it could be national. And so we advocate for a sense of balance between what politicians come to represent as extreme sides, with an image of the proverbial family dinner in the middle, peace had over mutual bread-breaking.
This is not politics. Balance is a deception.
The spectrum is a myth
It’s sewn into the very way we define American politics: right and left. Not only is it a false binary, it gives rise to a false image of a line with one group on one side and another group on the other. There are supposedly extremists on the furthest sections of each side, with the truth and the best result available only when the most reasonable people closest to the center agree to compromise. The truth lies somewhere in between, as they say. Balance.
But balance is a moving target. Many things that used to be radical are now commonplace and many things that are unimaginable in America are normal elsewhere. The middle is subject to history and geography–to the point that it hardly exists. The middle, when invoked, inspires not only a sense of compromise and rationality but a sense of objectivity and truth. The middle is the eye of the storm and the beholder of truth.
The image of the spectrum induces a cultish devotion to compromise that only leads to a compromise on values and a vision of the future.
Ceding the lead
To anchor centrism as the goal and the truth is to become adrift, movement left up to people who are willing to be principled and forceful. Over the past few decades, the supposed Left, as embodied and entombed in the Democratic party, has drifted rightward. The party that used to defend worker’s unions, for instance, now sees them fleeing toward the Republican party; the party that used to push for higher wages is careful even to introduce a graduated $12 minimum wage. Nancy Pelosi, one of the supposed leaders of the resistance, says without pause that a single payer system will not be part of the democratic future.
Replaced by vision is the idea that politics, and life in general, is a meritocracy and that those who ascend, the most meritorious, are presumed the right to manage the less meritorious. Leadership is defined entirely by personal worth, not by vision or by strategy. When Hillary Clinton became the Democratic representative, much was made of her worth, her credentials, her status, and her experience–all a case for her merit as a politician. As part of the professional class, she was entitled to the same promotion a professional worker waiting in the wings of seniority would presume themselves owed.
Managerial skill does not require leadership, certainly not the kind that necessitates charging forward and changing or disrupting–good management is the achievement of harmony, and in politics that means steering the course to the middle. Democrats, especially since the Bill Clinton years, have attempted to prove their merit by moving the country as close to the middle as possible.
And yet, as we have seen by the devastating strides made by Reagan, Bush, and now Trump, progress has moved almost inevitably to the right. It turns out that when one cedes the ability to lead, someone else will take the reins.
The liberal stain
Republicans have tasted the blood of Democratic weakness and can no longer resist it, if they even wish to. For them, anything remotely “to the left” of their core beliefs can be derided as liberal, and even socialist or communist by association. Largely fact-based and trustworthy news sources like NPR can become, in the conservative framework, propaganda centers for liberal media. Conservative media has fed and grown an averse reaction to anything remotely outside of their comfort zone, such that anything straying from the party line is effectively stained as liberal.
Meanwhile, supposedly propagandistic liberal media stations like CNN and MSNBC take pains to ensure that every topic is debated by opposing views, no matter the truth content of each view. In the search for trust and objectivity, but also in the search for entertaining spectacle, mainstream news poses pundits against each other and abandons the viewer to decide between them. This tactic limits the possible options to two and inevitably makes them seem equally valid–even when one is objectively false.
People grow disenchanted and distrustful of mainstream news when it obscures the truth. People intuitively know the truth exists, even if they don’t know it in particular, so to see hours of screaming reduced to shrugs is to insult the intelligence of every viewer even as it supposedly empowers them to choose.
Like it or not, “Make America Great Again” is a compelling vision. It is active, collective while also being individualistic, rooted in that powerful active verb and anchored in the imagery of nostalgia. “I’m with her” counters it with little to offer. The singular pronoun is individualistic to the point of solipsism, the object of “with” and the subject of “with” reduced to navel gazing passivity. The wealth of relationships in MAGA–between the individual, the collective, the leader, the nation–easily overpowers the superficial and singular relationship between employee and manager implied by “I’m with her.”
“I’m with her”, and the strategy implies, did not die with Clinton’s campaign but is instead a succinct summary of what the Democratic party has done for years and continues to do now, even as they “resist.” To be “with” someone is to identify with them or as them and it reveals the worst kind of identity politics the Democrats have been working with.
Identity politics gets a bad rap, the problems supposedly caused by it too often attributed to the “identity” portion and not often enough to the “politics” portion. Identity is essential to politics, but it should be informative, not formative. The Democrats have instead used identity as the be-all, end-all for reasons to vote. With the Clinton campaign especially, racial and gender identities too have tried to be consumed in this totalization of identity. Whoever you are, if you’re good, if you have merit, you’re supposed to be a Democrat simply by virtue of merit. If you’re at least somewhat good, then you should at least know what’s best for you–leaving it up to them.
This is clearly a losing strategy. People are increasingly alienated and in a chaotic, nonsensical world, they flee either into cynicism or the open arms of the Republicans, who offer righteous anger as a method of making sense of a painful world. To defeat this vision, a competing one must be offered–one that is made compelling not by the supposed merit of who speaks but of what they say. Compelling policies must be voiced, policies that point toward a future, away from the frozen cynicism that has become too well known–policies like medicare for all, universal basic income, prison abolition, anti-trust enforcement, union power, and more.
Balance cedes this territory without struggle. You can still seek objectivity and reject partisanship without at the same time assuming the tepid middle must also be the absolute truth. Politics must be restored to the struggle it always has been–a struggle over the power to distribute the rights granted to us by society. Throw away the idea that voting for someone to get something is somehow wrong–it’s in fact the only reason to vote at all. Instead of balance, seek vision because it will be vision that can organize people behind it. It’s time to abandon party unity and purity to instead focus on building issue based coalitions and movements in order to achieve a particular vision for a particular society.
Reject balance. Revive demand. Hold politicians accountable–to you and to the future.