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Lost in the Muddled Middle

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AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

The definition of who's a suitable friend, lover or lifelong mate has changed over the years. As racial prejudice has done a slow fade from the bad old days -- it's still with us, but it's no longer respectable anywhere -- the new, respectable prejudice is political.


In the 1967 movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," white liberal middle-class parents were shocked and unhappy when their lovely daughter invited a black man home to meet the folks, and worse, she announced that she was marrying him. It didn't matter that he was an ethical do-good doctor at the United Nations and as handsome as Harry Belafonte. His parents didn't like the idea much either.

Update the scenario to 2019 and the lovely daughter could bring home a card-carrying conservative with a MAGA hat in his briefcase. It would hardly soften the impact if he were played by a Clint Eastwood or Jon Voight look-alike from their younger years.

In divided America, nothing brings out moral condescension and preening so swiftly as polarized politics. Ideology frames opinion, attitude and bias, and polls tell us that prejudice extends to the partner a parent's child chooses to marry. In a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine, 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child were to marry out of the party. That's up 5 percent in each party since 1960.

Reliable data on politically mixed marriages is scarce, but my guess, based on informal observations, is that they're rarer now than during the Clinton administration, when Mary Matalin and James Carville were the oddest couple in town, debating their political differences on television. Now it's hard to get close to anyone of a different political opinion because social situations are segregated. No hostess wants to ruin her dinner party.


In the 1960s, a conservative friend of mine confessed he was not above expressing a favorable opinion of Fidel Castro or another radical if it would help him seduce a fair damsel of the left-wing persuasion. No conservative Lothario today would play games to woo a lady of the liberal persuasion. Animosities are too fierce.

But among the middle aged, it's becoming slightly easier to find men and women weary of severe partisan divisions who try to avoid the muddled middle. When everybody in Washington was talking about Michael Cohen's daylong testimony before the House Oversight Committee, followed by President Trump's two-hour speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on the meaning of his "Election ... with a capital 'E,'" the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, hosted a conference with the neo-radical title "Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism."

The theme actually drew an exclamatory "Wow!" from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and featured speaker. After he congratulated the prime movers and brave attendants for bringing attention to such a brilliantly "uncool," subject, he noted that "moderate" or "centrist" in his country is an insult indicative of "political malfunction." He defined moderation first by what it does not mean to him. It "does not mean mild, or lacking in passion; but rational respect for due process, willing to listen" to another point of view, he said. It does not mean splitting the difference between right and left but looks forward to discussing ideas and ideals rather than hardening an ideology.


Moderate perspectives are difficult to find in Europe these days, in Germany and France and more so in Hungary and Poland. In America, Blair saw an erosion of confidence in conventional policymakers after 9/11 and in the fight against terrorism and the bungling of the financial crisis: "Grievances are real." Immigration without adequate controls causes real anxiety, and casualties of globalism result. But the trouble with populists, who are often right in the problems they raise, is that "they're more interested in finding scapegoats than solutions," building their support "in the terrain of our complacency."

If grievance springs from seeing the world spinning out of control, Blair looks toward finding better and more radical ways to harness the technological revolution within democratic institutions, using market-based means toward creating a greater prosperity with protective social provisions for those hurt along the way.

Blair is harder on his country than on ours for failing to find solutions, but he sees little value in appraising which country is worse off. (He thinks Britain wins that one.) If inspirational moderation sounds like an oxymoron, it's nevertheless necessary to find new ideas to cure what ails us, to summon strength with intelligence to beat back the politics of pessimism. Moral condescension and preening won't do it.


Write to Suzanne Fields at suzannefields2000@gmail.com. Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost."

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