The Mushy Middle: A Response

Originally posted by Bastoche on 06/12/07

Nonpartisan posted two very stimulating essays on the Mushy Middle and Overton Windows over the weekend. To the second post I attached a comment on Nonpartisan’s characterization of the mushy middle, and he suggested I post it as diary.

Nonpartisan draws on James MacGregor Burns’ idea of a Jeffersonian two-party system, in which each party can confidently claim a dedicated portion of the electorate. In between is another portion of the electorate, the Vital Center, committed to neither party but open to voting for either.

To Nonpartisan this center is no longer vital but a mushy and indecisive crowd of swing voters. Worse, even though the swingsters are incapable of choosing between the clear political alternatives flanking them, they control the political process since neither political party can win without them.

By seeking in each cycle to win just enough of these voters to win the election, the Democrats willfully dilute their core progressive message and rush to occupy an inoffensive and incoherent center, thus alienating many of their own progressive adherents and reducing the political process to an exercise in opportunism and cynicism.

I agree with Nonpartisan that the Democrats must commit to a message that is openly and consistently progressive. But I disagree with his characterization of the swing voter, and I think it’s important that we have a clear sense of who the middlers are and why they remain middlers.

My description of the middlers is by no means complete. It could use some demographic data, further analysis of their ideological preferences and, of course, historical context. I might try to provide such analysis and context in future posts, but for now I’ll offer these few preliminary thoughts.

So, who are these guys and gals?

Many of these middlers (the mushy middle, the swing voter, the alleged independent) are middle- or working-class people who work forty to sixty hours a week and whose priorities are work/career and family/personal relationship. They are, like all of us, ideological, and their ideological preferences generally revolve around two sets of beliefs and ideals. One set has to do with their material goals and their Ideal of America, and this set connects with what a candidate puts forward as policy, domestic and foreign. The other set has to do with their own personal sense of honesty and integrity, and this set connects not just with a candidate’s policy but with a candidate’s attitude toward that policy: does the candidate adhere to a policy out of political expediency or inner conviction? 

Middlers, though, usually do not take the time to articulate these ideological preferences and firmly connect them to a policy or a party or a candidate until the presidential campaign heats up and it’s time to vote. This is not being “mushy.” As I said, these middlers work forty to sixty hours a week. In their off hours they have to repair the leaky pipe in the basement, get the kids to and from school, catch the last innings of the hometeam game, give mom that overdue phonecall, and get to the gym for an halfhour on the treadmill before the dinnerdate at seven. And while they’re doing all this, they’re worrying about the mortgage and car payments, how to keep the kids from falling into drug or alcohol abuse, what to do if dad can no longer take care of himself, and, maybe, how to deal with a relationship or a marriage that is no longer working. Who can blame them if, in what little spare time they have, they have no desire to study the specifics of a candidate’s position but would rather veg out in front of the TV for an hour or two before dropping off to sleep?

During the presidential race they will take more time to pay attention to politics. True, to a great extent their attention will be directed to soundbites and slogans, and they will bring to bear on those bites and slogans their ideological preferences: which candidate will help me meet my mortgage and car payments; which candidate will help me raise my kids; which candidate will honor my Ideal of what America stands for in the world, etc.

This accounts for the proliferation of political consultants and in-house pollsters (and also for the decadence of modern punditry). Since these middlers vote according to what is worrying them now, the consultants say, let’s find out what those worries are and base our campaign on it. Let’s find out, through polling and focus groups, the two or three magic-bullet issues that will gain victory for us in this cycle. The result? Politicians who follow polls and focus groups, who stand for nothing consistent, who do not lead, or as Nonpartisan puts it, who do not have the gumption to at least try to shift the debate in a more progressive direction (shift the Overton Window), come what may when the polls close. 

This, though, need not be the case, I think. As I said, these middlers also bring to bear on the bites and slogans preferences that come out of their basic sense of honesty and integrity: which candidate is not following a focus group but a consistent inner conviction; which candidate is genuinely concerned about my mortgage payments and my kids; which candidate has the capacity to listen to the other side without abandoning longheld principles; which candidate has a bone in his or her back that you can’t put your hand through; which candidate will lead.

If a candidate consistently speaks from conviction, that candidate will appeal to the basic sense of honesty and integrity in many of these middlers. They might not finally vote for the candidate because the candidate adheres to policies that are just a little too progressive for them. But some of them just might because they’ve been leaning progressive and they admire this candidate’s consistent and unapologetic adherence to a progressive view. And those who don’t vote for the true progressive now just might next cycle, which is why, I think, we want someone who is willing now to speak from conviction on progressive matters, because at least some in the mushy middle aren’t all that mushy but simply need someone to articulate for them, with a calm and unfaltering conviction, viewpoints that they know are decent and fair.

Edwards, for me, is right now that candidate. I think he’s speaking from an inner conviction and trying to do so consistently. He’s a longshot for the nomination-Hillary will probably wrap it up before most people pay much attention to the process-but while he’s campaigning, we’ll have the satisfaction of watching someone who is learning how to lead, even if he won’t be given the opportunity to do so. And if he’s not given the opportunity to lead, he’ll at least push the debate in the direction it needs to go and maybe, just maybe make a few of those in the mushy middle a little less mushy next time around. 

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