The Middle

Yesterday I voted for John Kasich and Bernie Sanders. In a way it felt like heresy to participate in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses on the same day, in spite of there being no rule against it. And it felt crazy because the two candidates are so insanely different. But I felt it was the best I could do to use my teeny-tiny little bit of influence to nudge our country in the best direction(s) available.

I don’t identify particularly with either party. I see good ideas and bad ideas on both sides, noble people and selfish people on both sides. I’ve never voted a “party line” ticket. Having a little (D) or (R) by your name doesn’t make you good or bad, competent or incompetent, honest or dishonest. Both parties have their virtues; both parties have their misguided idealisms; both parties have their Faustian bargains.

The fact that this country is so strongly divided between the two parties makes the middle an uncomfortable place. And it’s weird because, contrary to popular opinion, the people at the Republican caucuses and the people at the Democratic caucuses aren’t all that different. The two parties do present different visions for America, but their members are all Americans. So why is there so much vitriol? Why do the two sides seem to be running farther and farther to the extremes rather than finding some kind of common ground?

I guess I’ve been part of the problem with my intense anti-Trumpery. But I hope you see it’s because I am convinced that he represents a true danger to our country, to constitutional government itself. I despise his ideas. But I don’t think voting for Trump makes you a bad person. My difficulty in understanding why people would vote for him must be an indication only of my own ignorance of other people’s lives and priorities.

Whether you like him or not (and I actually don’t know that much about him), the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, gave a speech today that I loved. I feel like the vision of politics he described makes room for a “middle”. He emphasizes the exchange of ideas over the clash of identities. It’s idealistic. Maybe it’s unrealistic. But I also think it’s the only sane way forward for our deeply divided nation. Here’s the video plus my favorite passage:

Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be. That’s what our country can be. It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of “our base” and “their base,” we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.

We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.

In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. We question each other’s ideas—vigorously—but we don’t question each other’s motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens. Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood, right? We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently.

But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. We don’t shut down on people—and we don’t shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.

I’m certainly not going to stand here and tell you I have always met this standard. There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.

So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong. And of course, there are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse.

Governing ourselves was never meant to be easy. This has always been a tough business. And when passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves and from one another. We should think about the great leaders that have bestowed upon us the opportunity to live the American Idea. We should honor their legacy. We should build that more confident America….

That’s the thing about politics. We think of it in terms of this vote or that election. But it can be so much more than that. Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better. That’s what it can be and what it should be. This is the system our Founders envisioned. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s infuriating at times. And it’s a beautiful thing too.






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