Middle of the what?

Scott Sala, posting in the blog Urban Elephants, recently called your faithful correspondent “a self-described middle-of-the-roader,” when citing my comments on the troubles ahead for New York’s Republicans in challenging Senator Hillary Clinton.

Since to my knowledge I have never described myself anywhere as a “middle-of-the-roader,” I was amused by Sala’s categorization.

What was Sala thinking? Could he have been misled by the title of this blog? I would have thought “Neither Red nor Blue” and a subhead that says “independent commentary,” would be the description of…an independent thinker…someone not partisan—which doesn’t necessarily translate to “moderate” or “middle of the road.”

So why should it matter?

Only that such labeling reflects a deeper problem in American politics today, the near-obsessive desire to tag and categorize. It seems that the partisans of both the (self-described) Right and Left are eager to play this game, often so they can dismiss the views of those not in their camp.

I don’t wish to play. Or if you are going to tag me, put me in the camp of the mavericks.

All fine, you may say, but what really are your political views?

Tell me first: what is the question?

Depending on the question and the issue, my views may strike you as radical, or libertarian, or conservative, or liberal, or—horrors—perhaps even middle-of-the-road.

I plead guilty to being very American in this pragmatic approach.

Consequently, at times, I’ve found myself agreeing with–to name a few–John McCain, Warren Beatty, Tipper Gore, Congressman Chris Smith, Jennifer Granholm, Ice Cube, Chris Dodd, and Sam Brownback on, respectively, the use of torture, Hollywood’s vapidity and greed, rap misogyny, the need to act on Darfur, toughening high school academic standards, the continuing racial divide in America, a federal shield law for journalists, and the virtues of American exceptionalism. I heartily disagree with this cast of characters on other questions.

What does that make me? Confused? Conflicted? Or like many of you, skeptical of ideologically driven answers, unconvinced that any political party or ideology holds a monopoly on truth.

In my experience, strong partisanship distorts vision. Partisans crave reinforcement of their preconceptions, and often reject any evidence to the contrary. In fact there is some scientific evidence of this phenomenon. As Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee noted in his column entitled “Is partisanship a biological dysfunction?”:

Using scanners to measure brain activity, researchers at Emory University have found that rigid liberals and conservatives simply shut down the reasoning portions of their brains when exposed to facts that don’t square with their prejudices.

In 2004, a presidential election year, a team headed by psychologist Drew Westen assembled a panel of 30 men evenly divided between those who identified themselves as committed Democrats or Republicans. The men were hooked up to brain monitors and then subjected to a series of statements by President Bush and challenger John Kerry in which the rival politicians appeared to contradict themselves on issues.

Researchers found that when confronted with facts that conflicted with their beliefs about either of the two candidates, the men essentially shut down the reasoning portions of their brains, rejecting any input that undercut their preconceived assumptions.

It’s not just politics. In one famous psychological experiment Dartmouth and Princeton students viewed a film of a football game between the Tigers and (then) Indians and were asked to assess whether the referees were impartial. Not surprisingly, each group thought the officials had been skewed against their team.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against political parties; we need dedicated partisans (with a small “p:”) to make the system work. But how about more civility in our political discourse, and perhaps a dash of humility? Aren’t cookie cutters best left in the kitchen.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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