A prejudice we can’t ignore
Gates and Gerzon are co-founders of Philanthropy Bridging Divides, a transpartisan conversation with philanthropic leaders about how they can bridge ideological divides in America.
It is good that we are having important conversations about prejudices and implicit biases — racial, religious, sexual, linguistic, even educational. But we are missing one of the most important. If we don’t identify and address this prejudice, all the others are likely to get worse. The group being stereotyped, and sometimes denigrated, goes by a variety of names. Some of them sound neutral: “centrists,” “moderates,” “bi-partisans,” "trans-partisans." Other names are explicitly critical: “cowards,” “frauds,” “complicits," “wishy-washy.”
We are living through highly polarized times that are resulting in deep fractures within our families, our communities, and our nation. Deep biases and closed mindedness have eliminated the desire for those on the extreme left or the extreme right to seek any type of common ground. As former partisans who have become more moderate and centrist on most issues, we have personally experienced this prejudice. We have both been asked— “What happened to you?” — as if we had somehow lost our way. But all that happened was that we realized that an effective way to get things done in a divisive time is to work together and better understand the value of diverse perspectives.
So we know how these millions of Americans feel - politically homeless, outright condemned or quietly disdained. These "moderates" or "centrists" are attacked from both sides. In the current culture wars, the warriors of the Left and Right consider them to be deserters, unwilling to join the fight against 'The Enemy' (whoever they define it to be). They are all too often under siege and are more likely to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of being attacked.
Those who won’t become card-carrying "progressives" or "conservatives" are more and more becoming politically homeless. The Left has a community and its partisan media. So does the Right. Inside these like-minded communities on both ends of the political spectrum, they defend each other, are offended by the same things, and reinforce each other's biases. But those in the center have no such community. CNN famously tried to become the network in between MSNBC and FOX and the architect of that strategy was just let go. People have become addicted to conflict.
Both Left and Right are at best confused by these renegades who insist on occupying the “middle” and at worst angered by them. For example, Joe Manchin and Susan Collins are both looked down upon by partisans in their own parties for trying to understand both sides and find middle ground.
The extremes claim the high ground in the Holy War, each certain that they are saving the country from the other side. It is amazing to see how similar their rhetoric can be. While these true believers consider themselves standing courageously against the “enemy,” they see the centrists as appeasers, unwilling to recognize the evil, existential threat posed by the "bad guys."
Even news programs discriminate against the moderate middle. The conventional approach is always point/counterpoint, pitting a “progressive” guest against a “conservative” one. The ostensible goal is “balance." The result is paired partisanship that excludes anyone who sees “both sides.” If you are a prominent conservative or liberal, you have a chance to be heard. But if you see the strengths and weaknesses of diverse perspectives, there is little place for you as a commentator on cable news. In fact, we have both been told by network insiders that producers don't want to hear reasonable people. They told us that, for ratings purposes, they need people to argue with each other, not to find "common ground."
The irony is that this looked-down upon group who refuse to become party ideologues are, in fact, more numerous than either the Left or the Right. Recent polls show that “Independents” consistently are a larger group than either “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Yet the “I’s” have very little representation in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate. Without a caucus of their own, they are forced to pick a side. If this exclusion happened to any other major demographic group, claims of discrimination and injustice would erupt. Instead, the voices of those who are affected by this partisan prejudice remain virtually unheard.
We are raising our voices now because we want political dialogue to be robust, vigorous, and inclusive. Just as we do not want to shut out liberal or conservative viewpoints, we do not want moderate perspectives to be silenced either. We believe what is best for our country, and best for each of us, is prioritizing the whole truth — not half-truths divided along ideological lines. On most issues, the strident voices on the Left and Right seem to care more about twisting the facts to "win" the debate, or the election, rather than finding the optimal shared-value solutions for America.
The whole political spectrum, not just the Right and the Left, needs to be heard. The United States depends on it. So if you agree with us, please raise your voice too.