Holding the Center | The Nation


Holding the Center

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For many people, especially those not on the left or right of the political spectrum, internal ideological consistency is not a compelling duty. Many people hold strong opinions that are contradictory, and they are not bothered by that. Bitter grumbling about the US Postal Service is often accompanied by equally bitter grumbling about rising taxes, which are needed to support postal improvements. Many who are antichoice on the issue of abortion, saying that it is "killing a human being," are also pro–death penalty. Those who complain loudest about tainted peanut butter may oppose government regulation of industry. These constituents demonstrate that social traditions can trump financial self-interest, and that financial self-interest can sometimes trump social traditions. Loyalty to community practices, to family or friendship networks, to religious training or to economic self-interest plays a large role in a person's worldview, but nevertheless most people believe what they want to believe. The ideological commitments of the average voter cannot easily be categorized, as they can be in the case of ideologically motivated activists.

About the Author

Deepak Bhargava
Deepak Bhargava is Director of the Campaign for Community Change.
Jean Hardisty
Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates, a Boston-based research center.

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Obama's lack of a clear, consistent ideology is appealing to many centrists. Having endured eight years of George W. Bush, whose ideology was seldom breached during his administration, the voters were open to embracing a nonideologue. The "hope" and "change" slogans, maligned by Obama's opposition and some leftists, allowed many voters to assign positions to him according to their own internally inconsistent preferences. And now we see Obama presiding over an administration that is also internally inconsistent. He brought on Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two central figures in the financial excesses of the past fifteen years, to fix the problems those excesses have caused. He expresses strong support for unions and also supports charter schools, which are notorious for barring unionization of teachers. He wants to study the violations of the Constitution under George W. Bush carefully but has shown a willingness to use some of Bush's arguments to protect "state secrets." These are not the positions of an ideologue.

In order to woo centrist voters, rightists and progressives have debated whether to stay close to their core principles or to reach out with compromise policies. If the progressive movement wants to succeed in the Obama era, we must have a deep analytical understanding of the country, be politically mature in realizing that a movement needs above all to recruit new members and learn to live with those whose beliefs contain inconsistencies while opposing those beliefs that violate our core principles. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia and certain other bigotry cannot be condoned in any way. But how we oppose them is important. When Rick Warren, an explicitly antigay preacher, was chosen to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration, the LGBTQ community modeled an effective oppositional campaign to register their protest and educate Obama. Rather than demonize and attack Obama, they instead focused on demonstrating how insulting and hurtful the decision was. This is an approach that community organizers know well. Quite often, the challenge they face is to mobilize the community around an issue that will draw the maximum number of people. Without compromising their principles, organizers will often work with people whose views on other issues are incomprehensible to them. If the positions of supporters are abhorrent, however, recruitment could become a betrayal of core principles.

Voters who lack ideological consistency are estimated to account for between 18 and 25 percent of the electorate—more than the hard-core members of the religious right. The importance of the Tea Party has been vastly overstated relative to the importance of this swing bloc. Like Obama, the right seems to understand the strategic value of appealing to swing voters. For example, many born-again evangelical Christians, most of whom are not part of the religious right, are extremely generous and compassionate people. By teaching that poverty is a "disease of the soul," the right has played to their inconsistency. While criticizing government programs for serving both the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor (the latter being poor because they are losers, addicts or loose women), those on the right advocate addressing poverty on a case-by-case basis. It is more difficult for them to paint children with the "undeserving" brush, but the Republican blockage of S-CHIP legislation in 2008, and the lack of outrage about that from the center, demonstrates the power of ideological inconsistency. Most evangelicals agree that child poverty is certainly wrong and should be addressed, but often that position does not lead to support for federal programs. To progressives this is a blatant inconsistency, but to many evangelicals, who have been courted, recruited and "educated" by the right, it is an acceptable, even logical, position. While they do charitable work, often serving as the first to lend help in a natural disaster and provide desperately needed services on a daily basis, they see this work as a "private" rather than government mission. Their religiously motivated antipoverty work often places them close to people's experiences and gives them an understanding of the life challenges of the average person. But they do not trust government (also often based on their own experience).

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