"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall catch hell from both sides."
- Sign on the wall of Justice Department attorney Burke Marshall, 1964
In today's food-fight environment, where extremes dominate debate and choice is defined by either-or, finding a comfortable place to land is increasingly difficult.
Like most people I know, I tend to run screaming from both ends of the spectrum. Too conservative for the left wing and too liberal for the right wing, I find myself scrambling for the center aisle.
Yet, people in the middle often are held in contempt as fence-straddlers. If you're an opinion columnist, you're forced to pick a side. People want to know: Are you conservative or liberal? "It depends" is considered a weak answer, morally relativistic, lacking in backbone.
Abortion provides a convenient if unpalatable example. I've written dozens of columns through the years, more or less urging a pro-life position - having a baby forces a review of one's assumptions - while clinging to a pro-choice conclusion. Abortion is a terrible thing, I say, the violent termination of a life and a decision many women (and men) regret with time and perspective.
Nevertheless, I can find no way to justify government-enforced maternity. Under penalty of what? By whom? Under what circumstances? The practical applications of the moral ideal become nightmarish as we extrapolate to the real. Thus, one might hope to seek compromise. Can't a female who's old enough to samba deduce that she's pregnant and decide within, oh, 6-8 weeks? This is, after all, not a "Gee whiz, I dunno" question.
In the spirit of compromise, I also can argue passionately in favor of tougher education standards when it comes to abortion. If we can demonstrate how to use condoms to high school students, surely we can make vivid the pros and cons of abortion as birth control. In time, given what can't be ignored when abortion is studied up close, we'd accomplish the goal supported by most Americans (64 percent, according to Luntz Research Companies, August 2003) and articulated by President Bill Clinton: to make abortion safe, legal and rare.
My middle road, of course, makes me equally contemptible to those who dwell in the peripheries - both to the pro-lifers who view all abortion as murder, and to the slippery-slopers who consider objecting to "partial-birth abortion" tantamount to embracing the Vatican's view of The Pill. Caught between extremes of community morality and individual choice - amid near-hysterical ideological partisanship from parties that have been hijacked by radicals - people like me are adrift.
Apparently, I'm not alone. Indeed, given current trends, we may declare that we have reached a perfect storm of political backlash. Americans who cleave to neither extreme - some 50 percent of whom identify themselves as "moderate" - are fed up with the Ann Coulter/Michael Moore school of debate and are looking for someone to articulate a commonsense, middle path. They may have found their voice in John P. Avlon, chief speechwriter for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a New York Sun columnist, whose 2004 book "Independent Nation" has just been released in paperback.
Avlon insists that centrism is the more patriotic political position because it adheres more strictly to American values and founding principles than to ideology. A balance between idealism and realism, centrism is a yin-yang proposition that rejects shrill extremes and embraces reason, decency and a practical perspective. To those who insist that centrism is the death of dissent, Avlon argues that centrism is dissent - from outdated political orthodoxies.
"Extremists and ideological purists on either side of the political aisle condemn compromise," he writes. "But inflexibility either creates deadlock or dooms a cause to irrelevance."
That's from the introduction to "Independent Nation." The balance of the book is a compendium of short biographies of several U.S. presidents, senators and governors and their personal journeys as they illuminate the theme of centrism. Avlon says his purpose in writing the book was to give today's centrists a framework for understanding their frustration with extreme politics and a place for the politically homeless to hang their iPods. Or their heart monitors, as the case may be.
Extremists won't agree with Avlon that centrism is a patriotic position, but who cares? They've held the nation hostage long enough. Meanwhile, Independents are the fastest-growing group of voters across the country, especially among the young, hundreds of whom have e-mailed Avlon since his appearance last week on "The Daily Show" with Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. A Pew Poll published last week in The Economist broke down voters as 39 percent Independent, 31 percent Democrat and 30 percent Republican.
Socially liberal and fiscally conservative, Independents could be a powerful reckoning force by 2008. Politicians better wise up and tone it down.