The Vanishing Middle

  • By: Chamber President & CEO, Al Smith

I was seen in public with John Hutson the other day.  I know I shouldn’t be doing that.  It was a weak moment.  For those few who don’t know John Hutson, he is the larger than life union head of the Building and Trades Council AFL/CIO.

As we were having lunch recently, he told me that he had been advised by many of his union friends that he should not be “running around” with me. 

I don’t know that running around is the right description of what we do.  We both have served on a number of committees and boards and have struck up sort of a friendship.  He’s a labor guy –  I am management – but somehow we talk about things in a civil way.  We disagree on many issues – agree on some – but all in all enjoy each other’s company.

It’s not a bad way to conduct life in today’s world …. or is it? 

It seems like in this current, extremely partisan world, it is a crime to even talk to each other much less socialize.  However, I am told that SHOUTING is permissible.

How in the world did we ever get to this point?  Furthermore, how in the world will we accomplish anything if we continue?

David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times recently penned a piece reporting “partisan differences now divide Americans more sharply than distinctions of race, religion, education or sex – having pushed Democrats and Republicans to opposite corners on a wide range of formerly less partisan issues.” 

In a new study by thePewResearchCenterit was acknowledged that Americans are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years in spite of the fact that 80% of Americans say they want leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done.


Ulterior motive?

Now here is an interesting viewpoint.  Pulitzer Prize winning author for the Washington Post Steven Pearlstein opines that this polarization is exactly what the politicians want.  Why?

Pearlstein states that “In Washington and increasingly in state capitals, once a majority of the party in control of a chamber decides what it wants to do, everyone else in the party is expected to line up behind it – and everyone in the other party lines up to oppose.”  Sound familiar?

Most of us would believe that the voter at the center of the ideological spectrum is supposed to determine the long term course of government policy.  If you want to win, move to the center.  Right? 

Wrong – according to this theory.

With each political race depending more and more on the “mother’s milk” of politics – raising money – the candidate’s base needs to be energized.  Moderation and compromise does not energize the base.  Tons of negative ads, distortions and extreme claims regarding the opposition do. 

Pearlstein’s theory is these negative claims impact voter turnout.  While it fires up the extremes, it winds up depressing the moderate and independent voters with more and more of them dropping out of the process.  Witness an approximate 35% anemic turnout in the June election.

“The politicians who prevail in these gladiator contests inherit a system so bitter, so partisan and so ideologically polarized that they can’t accomplish anything.  If they try, they face a serious risk of being run out of office”, Pearlstein concludes. But, to the detriment of governing, they prevail.

His final shot is “government can’t be the solution when it is the problem”.

I love a comment from Dan Schnur, a political advisor and director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. While he was countering his student’s lack of interest and involvement in voting, he warned, “Politics is too important to be left up to the politicians.” 

So maybe, just maybe, we should take another look at this whole campaign financing thing.


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