Lost in the muddled middle

By – – Wednesday, March 6, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The definition of who’s a suitable friend, lover or lifelong mate has changed over the years. As racial prejudice has done a slow fade from the bad old days — it’s still with us but it’s no longer respectable anywhere — the new, respectable prejudice is political.

In the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” white liberal middle-class parents were shocked and unhappy when their lovely daughter invited a black man home to meet the folks, and worse, she announced that she was marrying him. It didn’t matter that he was an ethical, do-good doctor at the United Nations, and as handsome as Sidney Poitier, who was in fact portrayed by Sidney Poitier. His parents didn’t like the idea much, either.

Updating the scenario to 2019, the lovely daughter could bring home a card-carrying conservative with a MAGA hat in his briefcase and it would hardly soften the impact if he were played by a Clint Eastwood or a Jon Voight look-alike from their younger years.

In divided America, nothing brings out moral condescension and preening so swiftly as polarized politics. Ideology frames opinion, attitude and bias, and polls tell us that prejudice extends to the partner a parent’s child chooses to marry. In a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic magazine, 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married “out of the party.” That’s up 5 percent since 1960.

Reliable data on politically mixed marriages is scarce, but my guess, based on informal observations, is that they’re rarer now than during the Clinton administration, when Mary Matalin and James Carville were the oddest couple in town, debating their spousal political differences on television. Now it’s hard to get close to anyone of a different political opinion because social situations are segregated. No hostess wants to ruin her dinner party.

In the 1960s, a conservative friend of mine confessed he was not above expressing a favorable opinion of Fidel Castro or another radical if it would help him seduce a fair damsel of the left-wing persuasion. But no conservative Lothario today would play games to woo a lady of the liberal persuasion. Animosities are too fierce.

But among the middle-aged it’s becoming slightly easier to find men and women weary of severe partisan divisions who try to avoid the muddled middle. When everybody in Washington was talking about Michael Cohen’s day-long testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, followed by President Trump’s two-hour speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on the meaning of his “Election with a capital E,” the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, hosted a conference with the neo-radical title “Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism.”

The theme actually drew an exclamatory “Wow!” from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and featured speaker. After the prime minister congratulated the prime movers and brave attendants for bringing attention to such a brilliantly “uncool,” subject, he noted that “moderate” or “centrist” in his country is an insult indicative of “political malfunction.” He defined moderation first by what it does not mean to him. It does not mean mild, or lacking in passion, but rational respect for due process and a willingness to listen to another point of view. It does not mean splitting the difference between right and left, but looks forward to discussing ideas and ideals rather than hardening an ideology.

Moderate perspectives are difficult to find in Europe these days, in Germany and France and more so in Hungary and Poland. In America, Mr. Blair saw an erosion of confidence in conventional policy makers after 9/11 and in the fight against terrorism and the bungling of the financial crisis: “Grievances are real.” Immigration without adequate controls causes real anxiety, and casualties of globalism suffer real hurt. But the trouble with populists, who are often right in the problems they raise, is that “they’re more interested in finding scapegoats than solutions,” building their support “in the terrain of our complacency.”

If grievance springs from seeing the world spinning out of control, he looks toward finding better and more radical ways to harness the technological revolution within democratic institutions, using market-based means toward creating a greater prosperity with protective social provisions for those hurt along the way.

Mr. Blair is harder on his country than on ours in failing to find solutions, but sees little value in appraising which country is worse off. (But he thinks Britain wins that one.) If inspirational moderation sounds like an oxymoron, it’s nevertheless necessary to find new ideas to cure what ails us, to summon strength with intelligence to beat back the politics of pessimism. Moral condescension and preening won’t do it.

• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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