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Column: Our challenge is restoring social trust and a shared view of reality

For the Valley News
Published: 11/19/2020 10:10:21 PM
Modified: 11/19/2020 10:10:10 PM

It’s hard to be a moderate in American politics today. Most of us probably think of moderates as occupying the political center. But today, a moderate is an outlier, holding on to a center squeezed between two parties that have become hostile tribal camps. In the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, “ideological polarization is not on the rise, emotional polarization is on the rise.” He continues, “We don’t necessarily disagree more. We perceive our opponents to be more menacing. We see more fearfully.”

The political scene has changed drastically in the last five years. In columns late in 2014 and early 2015, The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. observed a trend toward the center in politics and efforts to argue issues “in the spirit of a shared quest for remedies.” He cited “moderate religion” and referenced Pope Francis “conveying a certainty about what his faith teaches him and a confident openness to those who are seeking answers along other paths.” He concluded by observing that “religious freedom will thrive and religion itself will be a force for good only if religious people can convey this sort of empathetic understanding of the truths that others hold dear.” This will encourage us to accept diverse views and to pursue the right questions.

Should we be worried today about the political center being “hollowed out”? I think so.

In this period of hyperpartisanship, there is considerable mistrust among factions in our country. Many on the right and the left have lost faith in the institutions of free speech and open debate. “Cancel culture” looms large, with the bipartisan tendency to vilify and abuse political opponents. America is heavily armed, and from Portland, Ore., to Kenosha, Wis., to the Michigan governor’s mansion, young men are radicalized and organized online — ready to take the law into their own hands.

On the other hand, we have a movement for social justice in the form of Black Lives Matter. Many of us, as participants or onlookers, applaud this movement. It’s vital to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail, in which he criticized white moderates (“who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation”) on the ground that their charges of excessive haste were a cover for the racist status quo: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”

But what if, in pressing for change to make Black lives better, the efforts for social justice make demands that some see as unreasonable? Many people may think the goal is important but the demands go too far. How do we respond?

Moderation may ease the tension among social and political factions. Espousing moderate views will not satisfy those conservatives or liberals wanting dramatic change, but moderation won’t block progress, either.

It’s important not to stereotype moderates. In a 2019 article on the website FiveThirtyEight.com, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, found that those who view themselves as politically moderate do not necessarily rate as moderate on policy issues. For example, he finds moderates on average to be solidly center-left on both economic and immigration issues but varied in their attitudes as to whether society should be more egalitarian or more market-oriented.

He concludes that there is little that unites these moderates in terms of policy or ideology.

After the tumultuous Trump years, we need a respite that allows us to reflect on our country’s troubled state and the things that have contributed to it. In this transition, we need a calming leader and the will to join with him to address our serious problems.

With considered attention to King’s worry that “wait” means “never,” perhaps we need to acknowledge the wisdom of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Our challenge is to restore a shared view of reality and the social trust that will hold our democracy together.

Bob Scobie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached by email at bobjoannescobie1 @gmail.com

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