07/14/10: Beyond partisan rhetoric

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown

I TALK about politics almost every day. Those with whom I converse run the gamut, from Republicans to Democrats, libertarians to independents. That we find points of agreement is no surprise. We fall within the normal distribution, also known as the bell curve.

Named for its shape, the bell curve graphically shows that most of the examples in a set of data are close to the “average,” while relatively few examples tend to one extreme or the other. Mathematically, about 68 percent of the data falls within one standard deviation of the mean. A little more than 95 percent falls within two standard deviations. Less than 5 percent falls outside of that.

American political opinion falls into that same normal distribution.

A recent poll shows that 68 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republican or Democrat, with the number of Democrats slightly more than half of that number.

What such party identification doesn’t show is the stratifications within the numbers. Some of those people are in the less than 5 percent that make up the fringes. There is no doubt, though, that between independents and partisans, there are a whole lot of folks in the middle.

There was a time in this country when the number of swing voters — those who voted for the person, not the party — far outnumbered partisans on either side. Those were the days when the news came from a few unimpeachable sources. Those were the days when we shared common experiences. The menu was limited: Cronkite for the TV news, a couple of local newspapers, three movies for Friday night’s date.

With the explosion of information, we get to pick from a smorgasbord, making it pretty easy to read and hear only   those with whom we think we agree. I say “think” because as we become more polarized, we lump all of those on the left or all of those on the right into a group and label them “the opposition.” The further we stray into our own camp, the less we hear the voices of the others. So we really don’t know where our areas of agreement lie, because we don’t listen to the other side.

But if the citizens fall into the normal distribution, then don’t we really have more in common than not? Why are we focused on that on which we disagree rather than that on which we agree?

The simple answer: Each group is defined by its most vocal minority. In other words, those folks on the tail end — the less than 5 percent of us — are speaking the loudest and controlling the conversation. With the demands on our time and the overwhelming number of information sources, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those yelling the loudest are representative of the rest.

No one can deny that the activist base of each party is primarily composed of its most ardent supporters. Their voices are loud, populating the blogs, the letters to the editor, the talk radio shows and the TV programs. They help propel candidates from relative obscurity into the public consciousness. They contribute money — and they vote.

Candidates and elected representatives are all too aware of this, stoking the fires of partisanship during campaigns by throwing out red meat to the activists. Simultaneously, they engage in a bit of subterfuge, doing a two-step toward the middle.

Because that’s where the bulk of the voters are.

Winning an election does not a leader make. A leader shows us the way forward, guiding us toward a common goal, that common goal being making our city, our state and our country the very best they can be.

Do I pine for the days when we didn’t have hundreds of channels on TV or thousands of blogs and magazines online? Absolutely not. Variety is the spice of life. Besides, there are some really good things that, were it not for activists, our country may have never embraced.

What I do want is more people who are willing to look at all the options available and not just those put forth by one side or the other. Starting from a point of agreement would go a long way to achieving that.