We can’t afford to leave centrists on the sidelines of politics

September 7, 2023 6:21 pm

(Stock photo via Canva)

I cannot remember who recommended, when I was a much younger man, that I read Hermann Hesse’s novel “Steppenwolf.” I not only read it, but then embraced several more of his works. I think the reason I related to it was because there was a wolf in the novel, living in the mountains of the Steppes, who would occasionally sneak into town after dark and observe the doings of the town folk, even looking in their shops and homes.

At that point in my life, I was hitchhiking around the country, literally coast to coast and constantly finding myself in new towns for one night or only part of a day. Steppenwolf was me, even when working at the resort hotels where I obtained summer employment, I was never a resident where I was residing.  My idea of a good town was one where some individual left the back seat door to his car unlocked and I could get a good and dry night of sleep and get up before he woke up.

My breakup with Hesse came when I finished his novel “Siddhartha,” which seemed to reach the epitome of self-examination. While I thought I knew who I was, there had to be more to existence than merely counting the hairs on my navel. I wanted to be involved in more than self-examination. I wanted to be part of a community.

All of this, and not just my journey, may help explain how we got to where we are today. We are focused on ourselves and what we want. Consider this: One-third of the country thinks the federal government is corrupt, criminal, and incompetent. One-third thinks the government isn’t necessarily corrupt, but clearly incompetent because it is not using resources enough to address the problems we face.

For the most part, 40% of us do not want to talk to the other 60% with their conflicting views. This is because they are so shrill and so strident that meaningful conversation is impossible. As a result of all of this, there is even money to bet as to whether Trump will lead his party to ruin, or the purists of the Democratic Party will boycott President Biden and enable us to experience President Trump’s second term.

A good explanation of how collectively we got to where we are is contained in David Brooks’ article in this month’s Atlantic, “How America Got Mean.” He contends that as we focus so much upon ourselves, we naturally join others who share our opinions. Together, our needs and views are reinforced, and the collective community goals are perceived to be only what we and the others in our group think they should be and nothing more.

Brooks writes that this condition exists because we have abandoned the principle of moral formation, or in lay language, the capacity to place the collective needs of society before our own self-interest. He writes that “Moral formation . . . means giving people the skills and habits that will help them be considerate to others in the complex situations of life.”

His solution is a massive public education about the responsibilities of citizenship. A helpful suggestion, but it does not provide relief if we want to address the problem now. Aided and enabled by a media that now favors controversy, looks for the extreme, and promises repeatedly within the last 24 hours at least four times that this or that breaking story confirms the bias they are reflecting in their new coverage.

Yet the paradox is that these same political activists are perfectly capable of cooperating on a whole variety of local community projects, like charitable fundraising, church activities, and supporting a local sports team. But move the issues to the state or national level and decorum becomes a foreign word.

What is lacking here are two elements. First, our friends on the far right and far left have forgotten how this country was built, how we came to succeed with a government of democracy. It was not achieved on division, but a common purpose adopted by a significant majority in challenging times to move with consensus to solutions.

What both our friends of political extremism and stridency also do not seem to recognize, secondly, is that neither side represents a majority of political ideology if those of moderate political views, centrist if you will, start playing a far greater role in not only selecting candidates but advocating for temperate solutions.

I am almost ready to recommend that if two candidates are seeking election, find me the most reasonable person and I will vote for that individual irrespective of party. I know moderates are moderates so they do not actively involve themselves in political discussion, which is why they are moderates. But this country will be stronger and better if those who simply watch become more involved. I know that is hard, but as I have written before, democracy is hard.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.