The Myth of the Political Spectrum

A political science professor and a journalist have an interesting piece in this morning’s Washington Post entitled “The Myth of the Middle.” They aim to refute the notion that the 2006 election showed the public wanted bipartisanship, and they cite polling data to show that Americans are just as divided as their representatives in Congress.

The visual representation of the nation’s voters isn’t a nicely shaped bell, with most voters in the moderate middle. It’s a sharp V.

I think there is a legitimate question who is following and who is leading on this one, but I do not think the one-dimensional, left-center-right way of viewing the electorate is very useful. Journalists and political scientists seem to love it, but I have questioned that metaphor for at least 20 years, ever since I noticed liberal and conservative judges making common cause on civil liberties issues. It seemed to me then that if I were looking for help from geometry, I’d choose a circle instead of a line. (In other words, the two extreme ends of the line actually have more in common with each other than either does with the middle.) Twenty years later, even that image strikes me as simplistic and misleading.

More fundamentally, I believe journalists and political scientists have long erred by portraying moderates essentially as people who can’t make up their minds or who largely lack any attachment to overarching principles. It seems to me the most stalwart moderate is likely to be the one who is attached simultaneously to many overarching principles and wants to harmonize them as much as possible rather than just picking one and riding that trolley to the end of the line. (A friend of mine credits an old roommate of his who later became a congressman with the observation that “you have to know when to get off the trolley.”)

It seems to me that if moderate politics is ever to recover its influence, it will be because some significant number of us recover our appreciation for the way the truth is usually found between the extremes. I think here of Aristotle’s “golden mean” for the virtues: courage is not the opposite of cowardice; it is the midpoint between cowardice and rashness. In just that way, I would suggest that many of the antinomies of contemporary politics have answers in the middle. Instead of treating liberty and security as two alternatives, we should recognize that our liberty is what makes us strong and pursue both simultaneously, just as the courageous man pursues both victory and self-preservation.

It has not escaped my notice, however, that many modern American virtues seem to be unipolar in a way that Aristotle’s were not — think of industry, independence, and honesty. But it will take more than a morning blog post to sort that out.

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3 Responses to “The Myth of the Political Spectrum”

  1. Michael van der Galiën Says:

    Mark, interesting article. I will link to it tomorrow.

    I think here of Aristotle’s “golden mean” for the virtues: courage is not the opposite of cowardice; it is the midpoint between cowardice and rashness.

    I agree with your assessment but people should realize that with ‘middle’ Aristotle did not mean the ‘literal’ middle. He meant ‘in between’. Something more to the right, so to speak, sometimes more to the left (politically).

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael, and I think we’re on the same page. Your observation implies, I think, that moderation is not passive fence-sitting or even mere horse-trading; it often involves heavy lifting, intellectually speaking.

  3. Moderation in Ill Repute? « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] not the only form moderation can take, and I think it is not even the most common. I have suggested in a previous post that Aristotle’s conception of each cardinal virtue as a “Golden Mean” between […]


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