July 29, 2004

Stuck in the Middle

Several--okay, many--weeks ago, I asked people to supply me with definitions of the terms "moderate" and "centrist."

I had fascinating responses, but not much consensus, which eventually led me to the "duh" realization that the lack of consensus was inevitable. I was asking people to pin the tail on the great gray indeterminate blob of people who are invested in neither the right nor the left wing of American politics.

See? Duh.

Also too late, I realized that there are two distinct subsets of the middle: First, let's take the middle folks who don't care very much about politics at all. They either seldom vote, or vote without giving it much thought. Maybe they vote as their parents did, or as their in-laws would like, or the way their cousins who are "really up on these things" recommend, or the way that will ensure Norm Macdonald has another four years in which to refine his Bob Dole impression, or--

Oh, wait. That last was me in 1996.

How time flies.

I think it was Tucker Carlson I heard recently define a "swing voter" as someone who wasn't well-versed in the issues, who didn't really care one way or the other; he put all swing voters into the first group. I thought that was a dismissive and ignorant way to refer to people who look at Kerry, look at Bush, wince, and go, "This is it? This is the best we can do? I got Chimp and Lurch to choose from? You're kidding, right? Please tell me you're kidding."

Some people will always be apathetic about voting. Some people will always be bored by politics. But it seemed to me that maybe some people were bored by politics because the choices they were given were so uninspiring. Maybe the poor quality of the candidates caused the apathy, or maybe the apathy caused the poor quality of the candidates, or maybe it was a combination of both.

I think there is another subset of the middle: People who are cognizant of the issues, but can't quite marry up with either party's full platform. And I think I'm in that subset.

I mentioned in a comment thread the other day that I'm a lousy Republican, and this is true politically and culturally. I support gay marriage. I am pro-choice. I favor increases to the minimum wage. I am leery of faith-based initiatives. Culturally, I'm a really lousy Republican: I like political correctness. There, I said it. I prefer "Asian-American" to "Oriental," "woman" to "lady," "Native American" to "Indian." I prefer that people be addressed and referred to with as much respect and consideration and politeness as can be afforded them.

It gets worse: While I wouldn't support laws restricting their availability in any way, I nonetheless think SUVs suck, and I think if you're a single person who doesn't live in rough terrain or regularly face severe weather and you drive one, odds are good I'd find you a pretentious asshole. I don't believe that white Christian males are now the most discriminated segment of the populace. Gun nuts sometimes make me nervous. I secretly cheered at all the Bennett-bashing and, while not without sympathy for chronic pain sufferers, more than once during the to-do about Limbaugh's drug addiction I thought, "Y'know, if ever a guy had it coming . . . ."

As I said to my brother in an email once, to me the proof that the Democratic Party has really fucked up the last four years is that by virtue of my background and positions on the issues, they should have me all sewn up--and they don't. I'm arrogant enough to view that as their failure, not mine.

I voted for Bush in 2000. It's likely I will vote for him again this year. But I'm a terrible disgrace as a Republican.

And I'd be just as terrible a Democrat, but my objections in that regard are simpler and easier for me to express, and can basically be summarized in two points:

(1) I don't believe government can be a force for good; I believe it is simply a force that can be used to make its citizens do that which they would not otherwise do, period. Thus, I prefer that it be limited.

(2) I don't believe a world without borders is achievable or desirable, and I don't support transnational progressivism.

And we can further simplify those two points as, "I don't like the philosophical bent of either their domestic or their foreign policy."

As nearly as I can tell, I am truly stuck in the middle, and that's not always a happy place to be. The funny thing about doing that little informal survey--or at least, the part that surprised me--was how many people assigned negative descriptions to words like "centrist" and "moderate." Moderates were people "afraid of being cut out of the local social group by taking a stand." A centrist was someone who was "on the fence" or, as my boyfriend put it, and he meant it unflatteringly, "Sandra Day O'Connor." And then there was the crazy dude who said a centrist was "one Mommy & Daddy didn't pay enough attention to within their childhood."

Actually, I think that may have been my favorite comment.

So I wasn't expecting to turn up these negative reactions, and then I thought about it some more and I thought I had as good an explanation for it as I was likely to get with my limited brain power: Whether you call someone a centrist, a moderate, or a swing voter, what you're probably talking about in essence is someone who won't just order off the menu.

And let's face it, a lot of us hate that guy. You know the one. He's the guy who cuts you off at the drive-thru so he can special order everything. He's the guy you hate going to lunch with because his order is always such a production:

"And for you, sir?"

"Yeah, this skillet thing here--" [points]

"The Ranchero Skillet, sir?"

"Yeah--what's that come with?"

(Everything the Ranchero Skillet comes with being listed, of course, in the menu.)

"That comes with your choice of rice, beans, tortillas, biscuit, or papas con chile."

"Lemme get a side salad with that."

"Er, okay, sir, I think we can substitute that for you. Would you like just our house salad, or our Caesar?"

"Hmm. Uhhhh . . . you got any lite dressing for the Caesar?"


"Can I get that Caesar with lite dressing."

"Ah, well, sir, we really only have one Caesar dressing available, but we do have a lite Ranch available with the house salad--"

"Tell you what, how 'bout you just give me the Caesar dressing on the side."

"Oh. Oh, certainly, sir."

"And hold the croutons."

[Writing] "Nooooo . . . croooou-tons . . . ."

"Yeah, and tell them to leave the jalapenos outta my skillet. They gimme heartburn. Oh, and can I get mozzarella on toppa that instead of the colby-jack? I'm tryin' to watch my fat intake."

No one likes that guy. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that some people find moderates annoying. Why can't they just choose a platform and stick with it? Why can't they just order off the damn menu?

How many people out there this year, I wonder, don't like the menu?

Posted by Ilyka at July 29, 2004 07:28 PM in i don't know you tell me

::: applause :::

You NAILED it. Me. (Without the women's prison visualizations.)

I have a theory that there are more of us [spits] centrists....um....moderates...no non-menu-orderin' MF'ers than ANYONE realizes.

At least I HOPE so. This means we're thinking for ourselves.


Posted by: Emma at July 29, 2004 08:12 PM

Run for President, girl. You have my vote.

I don't like anything on the November menu. I'm annoyed at the kooks on the right and the kooks on the left. If my friends and colleagues only knew what I do in the voting booth......

Posted by: Rob at July 30, 2004 03:35 AM

where you show that you are an excellent Republican is in your objections to Democrats number one. it is entirely contained within one word, "Thus." no Democrat ever gets to "Thus." Why? Because the D message is that there are these terrible problems (e.g. health care). implied is that They will solve them. the R message is there is a problem (e.g. low domestic oil production) and Thus we should do something to fix it (e.g. drill for more). The Thus in your sentence indicates that you are R in temperament if not in agreement with each proposal making up the coalition.

Posted by: rammer at July 30, 2004 05:22 AM

I'd like a special order myself. Can I get a half-Republican, half-Democrat? Finances on the Republican side, only hold the corporate welfare and the recent tendency for big spending. And social issues on the Democrat side, except leave off the hate crime legislation and special rights for minorities.

"Moderate" never seemed apt for me. I'm not moderate in my beliefs; I hold them very strongly. Likewise, "centrist" implies that I'm somewhere between conservative and liberal, but that's not accurate at all. Whether I'm conservative or liberal depends on the issue you're asking me about.

I liked the term I read recently: "Schwarzenegger Republican." I voted for Arnold, and I'm pleased with him so far. And if you don't like it, you're a girlie man.

Posted by: sansioy at July 30, 2004 08:02 AM

I think I'm even a bad centrist. I would honestly swear to support any candidate who had a board in his platform saying he'd nix every damn bit of legislation that had pork on it and the ones that didn't have pork on them too unless they also repealed twice as much previous legislation.

That is my ideal candidate.

Posted by: Jim at July 30, 2004 01:55 PM

What, Jim's Jewish?

I too find the whole thing awesomely unsatisfying. I have delayed ordering my absentee ballot not only since the damn Texas absentee ballot website is a pain in the ass, but because it's really a choice of voting for bad or worse, I think. I do need to get it done. I mean, what if my one vote is what decides the election? :)

At least I am not admitting to voting for Schwarzzy. Which I would never do even if I had done (and I didn't.) Girlie man is an acceptable label with me, as long as it's not followed up with "Touch my monkey."

Posted by: Helen at July 30, 2004 03:15 PM

Darlin', not only don't I like the menu, I don't even like the fuckin' restaurant. Not the United States -- I LOVE America. I can't even describe how glad I am that, by accident of fortune, I get to live here and not in one of the shitholes that most of the world's population live in.

No, I mean I don't like having to eat in a place that only has two things on its menu, and is specifically designed to make sure that nothing else is ever on the menu. My problems with the government are entirely structural. It's gone so far outside its Constitutional mandate and its delegated powers that to restrain it would require a new Constitutional Convention at this point. And it gets fed a constant supply of Republicans and Democrats who are more interested, than anything else, in ensuring that only Republicans and Democrats get to have power over our lives.

Why *can't* we have debates with more candidates? I think anyone who has done the hard work to get on the ballot in all 50 states, or even in 40+, should be part of the debates. There are other ideas out there about how government should govern, and they never get heard.

Posted by: Phil at July 30, 2004 04:32 PM

I don't think any Republican or Democrat agrees with every plank in their party's formal position. Exhibit A would be the Dems' convention which looked to me like a smooth piece of Saran Wrap stretched over a seething cauldron of angst.

And I voted for Schwarzenegger, BTW, and I am happy to consider myself a Swarzenegger Republican. ("Girlie men"! I love it!)

Posted by: Dr. Alice at July 30, 2004 10:01 PM

The great thing about the American system is the thing that most people find most annoying about it: it forces voters to compromise.

See, in any system, there will be compromise. No matter what, if it's democratic, there'll be compromise. You could be like Israel and have a million different parties so it's easy to find one that matches you perfectly--and then all those parties wind up bashing the shit out of each other when they finally meet in the legislature and have to find some way of compromising with each other.

Our way, it's the voters that have to compromise.

The real power is trying to get the parties to come to you, rather than you going to the parties. Which means that if your vote's open to change, they may try to come to you to get your vote.

But you'll always wind up not entirely happy with who you vote for.

Me? Since I'm not the least bit afraid of faith-based initiatives and I DO think males and Christians get more bashing than they deserve, I'm probably happier with Bush than you are. But that said? If the Dems had nominated Lieberman, I'd have voted for him in a heartbeat over Georgie boy.

The real question is whether you ultimately believe in the American system. This I do. It makes voting for candidates you don't exactly love a whole lot easier. In the end the American people always find their way to the right answer sooner or later.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at August 2, 2004 02:13 PM

Dean, I don't agree with you much politically, but I agree with the substance of everything you said there. In general, we do have a good system. Sure, we have some problems, but who doesn't. I'm a way to the left liberal (at least on social issues, I'm sort of in the middle on economic ones) and I'm not completely happy with the dems, but I'm willing to compromise because that platform fits me better than most of the others out there. And I probably would have stayed home if Lieberman had been nominated. :)

Posted by: kathy at August 3, 2004 04:32 PM

Just as a mostly irrelevant aside, I recall from a fairly reliable source that "Native Americans" generally prefer to be called "Indian" (pronounced more like "in-din") than "Native American", preferring the appropriate tribal name even more strongly.

(I'd personally suggest "Asian" rather than "Asian-American", if we must refer to a set of Americans by their geographic origin. Not, mind you, that I'm Asian. But those few Americans-of-Asian-descent I've had any conversation with on the issue seem to simply prefer "Asian" to the hyphenated term, and unlike "Oriental" it has, AFAIK, no disfavourable history.)

Posted by: Sigivald at August 5, 2004 11:11 PM