The Moveable Middle

When politicians say they’re mainstream, what are they really telling us?

Last month, Harry Reid accused his Republican rival for the U.S. Senate, Sharron Angle, of not being mainstream enough after she had voiced support for Yucca Mountain, speculated on ending Social Security and proposed the demise of the U.S. Department of Education.

It was a nice bit of theater for Reid. The man Republicans say is out of touch with the mainstream got to castigate his Republican opponent for being out of touch with the mainstream. No doubt Reid’s thanking his lucky stars that he’s running against Angle. But it’s that word that grabs me. Mainstream. It has a nice, only slightly sanitized ring to it. It’s like vaguely scented dishwashing liquid. Not very sexy. And yet, who doesn’t use it?

The idea of the mainstream was also apparent in the commentary on the passing of former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn. One of the few things the increasingly partisan Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sun could agree on was that Guinn was a good, straight-shooting governor, a guy who could bridge left and right and get things done. In other words, a mainstreamer.

Talking about the mainstream doesn’t make much sense unless we’re also talking about its opposite number, the extreme. The idea goes like this: The mainstream is where good sensible Americans live and work. The whack jobs inhabit the extreme. Republicans’ and Democrats’ basic rhetorical mission is to seize the mainstream as their own while casting the other party as zombie-eyed extremists. When we’re in our “All politicians are lying sons of bitches” mode—which is pretty much all the time now—the center is a kind of refuge, a place above politics, a safe harbor from which we can dismiss people we disagree with as ideologues. This rhetorical tap dancing is part of the central con of politics: Play the game more ruthlessly than your opponent while convincing people you’re not playing the game at all.

Once the middle becomes a political plaything, it’s no longer the middle, but “the middle.” What was once useful shorthand for “I’m open to good ideas, no matter where they’re coming from, just so long as they don’t turn the damn place upside down” has turned into a rhetorical dancing shadow. One wonders if “mainstream” has lost its meaning for good. Perhaps each state should cook up a scientifically quantified political “zero point” and then allow conservatives and liberals to orient themselves within a set range to left or right of that point. It’d be a score, you know. Maybe you’d put it on your driver’s license, with recertification every four or five years. Maybe everyone would be assigned a political spectrum number the way those bed companies advertise sleep numbers — a 25 if you like a soft bed, 75 if you like a hard bed, or whatever. At rallies and campaign stops, social media would allow us to aggregate everyone’s score so that you knew that the ACLU convention was rocking an average score of +13 Left, and the Tea Party confab was hovering around a +10 Right. Imagine how much easier this would make assessing potential dates.

It would, of course, be fashionable to have a high score on either end. The traditional center can be safe and dull, more beholden to deal making (or selling out) than principles, too wishy-washy—a place for fair-weather fans without that fighting spirit. But it’s a place constructive politics can hardly do without, the place of common sense and common ground. Unfortunately, we’re in a culture that values standing out, and to stand out it helps to be at the edges, preferably screaming your head off. The result is that the old center is being squeezed from both sides. Nowhere is this more visible than with Barack Obama. The president strikes me as an extremely pragmatic centrist, yet he is hated by both the right—where it has been decided that he is an emissary of Lenin, if not Satan—and the left, which fears that he’s sold his soul to The Man. The political-media sphere has set new rules for the game: A centrist is now the guy who both sides can call an extremist.

Loudmouths make for good TV and Twitter feeds, but they’re doing us all a disservice by implicitly claiming that consensus is impossible, that America is riven by insurmountable differences, that we have less in common with our neighbors than we think unless they’re shouting the same bellicose tune. At some level, I think many Americans recognize it’s all bullshit, but all we seem able to do is respond with more bullshit.

If the mainstream of Kenny Guinn and Barack Obama seems bound to be compressed to oblivion, we may need a new notion of the mainstream. Maybe the new American center is the site of maximum contradiction. America’s center says Leave me alone, but look at me! It roots for the underdog, celebrates the top dog, longs for success and finds failure endlessly entertaining. It’s the intellectual who disparages falling education standards but loves tuning into American Idol, the public transit fan who can’t wait to get out of town and tear up the Mojave in a V8 Camaro. Maybe the mixed messages each of us sends out—the very attitudes that look like hypocrisy and reek of the much-maligned flip-flop—are in reality the measure of our humanity, our inability to hold firm to a narrow and parched platform. They mark the map on which my world really does overlap with yours.

This center coheres around the unending tension between, as David Mamet once put it, getting ahead versus getting along. It’s the place where we listen as much as we talk. Where questions count for more than proclamations. Where uncertainty is a celebrated fact of life. It’s the place, finally, where rival ideas can truly compete, because we’ve accepted their right to exist.

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