Viewpoint

Is there a place for the political middle?

Sen. Jeff Flake walks on to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill last week after announcing he won't seek re-election.
Sen. Jeff Flake walks on to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill last week after announcing he won't seek re-election. AP

“The bottom has fallen out of the Republican Party.”

So wrote Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram columnist Cynthia Allen last week.

“Well,” she continued, “not the bottom exactly. More like the middle.”

She was writing about Texas, where the far right-wingers are driving moderates out of the party. “So-called Republican ‘moderates’ have been living on borrowed time. They are vestiges of an era when compromise was a hallmark of good policymaking.”

She had harsher words for Texas Democrats, who, she said, “drove out every member of their party who didn’t adopt the agenda of the far left.”

If Allen lived in North Carolina, she might say the same things about both of our major parties. They are forcing out the moderates who are uncomfortable with their parties’ unwillingness to accommodate compromise and less strident approaches.

martin
D.G. Martin

The Pew Research Center last week issued a report that confirmed major challenges for the political middle. “Nearly a year after Donald Trump was elected president,” the report begins, “the Republican coalition is deeply divided on such major issues as immigration, America’s role in the world and the fundamental fairness of the U.S. economic system.”

Democrats have a shade different stage of divisiveness. “The Democratic coalition is largely united in staunch opposition to President Trump. Yet, while Trump’s election has triggered a wave of political activism within the party’s sizable liberal bloc, the liberals’ sky-high political energy is not nearly as evident among other segments in the Democratic base. And Democrats also are internally divided over U.S. global involvement, as well as some religious and social issues.”

The Pew report helps explain the power of the extremes in each party. Core Conservative Republicans on the right and Solid Liberal Democrats on the left “make up an even larger share of their partisan coalitions when political engagement is factored in.”

Thanks to their more active participation, far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats have moved their parties away from the middle and toward the fringes.

Officeholders in the middle of the Republican Party face competition from Steve Bannon’s support network and others on the fringe. One of them, moderate Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, announced his retirement earlier this month, as did U.S. Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Democrats have similar challenges. The middle may be bottoming out of their party, too. Long-time moderate Democrats with pro-business, free trade, and social conservative views wonder if they are still welcome.

What are the pathways for those in the unwelcome middle of both major parties, other than following the route out of politics shown by Straus, Flake and Corker?

Cynthia Allen, who recognizes the need for a strong middle in both parties, wants the disaffected to stick with their parties and fight it out against their parties’ controlling fringes. “Instead, they are abandoning the field, and everyone loses.”

Although it has been more than 150 years since Americans organized a major new political party that competed for control of the national government, today’s disappointed middle in both parties may see this possibility as their only alternative to dropping out.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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