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Democracy With No Center Is a Zero

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On a day of tragedy and shared grief, when so many young adults remembered the parent they lost ten years ago and moved us to tears when they said so at Ground Zero, there was one bright, startling ray of hope that emerged from our communal sadness: faced with an evil shared enemy that would do us all down, we Americans failed to hate each other this day.

When I emigrated to America, I began a love affair still ongoing with this vast melting pot of ever-bubbling democracy in action, a gigantic stew of ideas and ideologies free to be spoken and heard, a cauldron of views, counter-views and counter-counter-views expressed widely, openly and with passion. It didn't seem to matter much who you were, where you were from or what you had to say... America gave you your 15 minutes and a microphone to throw ingredients into the ideas pot.

But every two years, through an election process that seemed less corrupt than most anywhere else, leaders were elected by a majority of those who bothered to vote. And the leaders would sit in Assemblies and Houses and Senates and they would discuss, conciliate, find the center and thus exert sensible leadership.

Then something horrible happened. The system broke. Like a gearbox with no oil, there was an awful gnashing noise and the whole noble democracy thing ground to a halt. And everyone got mad at each other and called each other idiots and swore they'd rather die than compromise with such a bunch of ignorant pedants as the other ones, who by the way said the same things about them.

Time for some home truths, time to take the cover off the gearbox and understand how this democracy thing actually works. Time to pour some lubrication around the cogs and start it back up pronto, before we lose the whole vehicle.

Firstly, can we please agree that no democracy can please all the people, all the time? Whether the election yields a 51-49 result, or a 60-40 outcome, there are almost as many people who didn't get their guy elected, as did. And how democracies have to work, the stage craft if you will, is that the elected leaders have to govern while remembering that damn near half the people disagree with them, don't want them and that those people also have to be factored into their decisions.

Our democracy is in peril not so much from external forces like a rising China and India, nasty terrorists and our declining position in the globally circular economy. No, I suggest the biggest threat to us is actually us: our inability to create a government that builds consensus and rules from the middle. So much yelling and name calling, so much polarized yammering, so many fighting words and pretty soon we are on a slippery slope down to dysfunctional government and paralyzed leadership. I think this is going on right now. And if you look in the mirror with me, you will see the cause: us, and those who encourage our worst instincts so that they can make an extra buck.

There is an equal and opposite extremism going on: don't inflict your own prejudices, fears and loathing... stand back and acknowledge that both extreme ends are nuts, selfish and destructive of a functional democracy: Far Right, meet Far Left, your partners in unhelpful polarizing paralysis. What is going on here? Are we really two countries, so that running the show through a single democratic system is as likely to succeed as herding cats? No, because look here, it has worked really, really well for a couple of centuries. Somehow, improbably and yet most often, the center was found and things progressed forwards in America. But not now. The oil of civilized discussion, the art of sane compromise has burned away in the heat of destructive rhetoric and sound bites.

Who did this terrible thing? Firstly, I blame extremist media on both sides for turning news into polemic, for selling extra advertising by blurring news into an entertainment not unlike the unreality of Reality Television shows, one that panders to the lowest common denominator of human interest, a desire to see people eviscerated and belittled. I blame those cable news shows that on both sides put forth some violently extreme talking head, and as counter-balancing opinion, another nut job who mostly agrees with them. Rah! Rah! let's call anyone who does not toe the same extreme line bad names and laugh at them. Let's call them bad Americans, traitors and worse. Let's make it almost impossible to find the middle. Let's bury the center in a pile of hot language, and the un-clever and superficial analysis of complex and important issues. Let's contribute to national consensus on crucial issues by blowing it up with glib sound bites and slick graphics. Let's demonize the other 49% and treat them as fools.

And I blame most but not all of our political leaders, who, faced with this polarizing media and the polarized voters it has created, fail to lead us back to the center and instead compete for votes based on being even more extreme than their opponent: "I'm a purer version of this lunatic and impractical extreme view than you are" they might as well be saying in the debates going on.

Human thought is not binary. Not all decisions on life and policy have to be reached from the same Republican or Democratic rule book. Why do I have to feel the same way on trade as a party, because I feel as they do on a social issue? Why do views on hugely personal social issues have to be lumped into the same arbitrary bucket as economic views? Why do views on social justice mean I have to view government as the most efficient way to get there? Why does everything have to be lumped into the same bucket, whether it fits or not? Beats me. We teach our children to think for themselves on a case by case basis, but we give enormous power to two parties to tell us how to think on the full range of unrelated issues. Why do we still have a la carte menus in restaurants? Why not, "Republicans, eat this hors d'oeuvre before this entree" and "Democrats, these desserts may only be eaten after these entrees"? What happened to each of us studying the issues, discussing them with peers, and reading divergent views before making up our minds? What happened to personal choice?

The worst enemies we've had to face in wars are the ones who don't give a damn, they just wanted to win and winning meant killing us and taking our treasure. And the worst of the worst are the ones who were or are willing to die to kill us, because they have been persuaded that some other life trumps this one anyway, that this is just a brief loss-leader in the cosmic reality. They are wrong, but they are tough enemies to beat, because they would rather die than lose. They would rather blow up the whole circus rather than negotiate a solution. And that is precisely what we are now seeing in Washington, in our State Capitals and on those cursed cable TV blood sport news programs.

Democracy is a rare and precious flower and it has allowed more progress for more people than any other system ever invented. But it is fragile. You can't yell too much. You can't demonize those who disagree with you. Like all human organisms, from a family to every company in the land, you have to practice the art of compromise. You have to find the best middle, with respect, appreciation and good will.

So this is a plea for equal time for the center: the poor, vilified middle that is actually the best solution to most human challenges when a huge diversity of views has to be served by a single policy outcome. And you journalists of the Fifth Estate, you unelected pontificators whose lapel microphones reach so many ears... with your bully pulpit comes a responsibility to stand back, respect history and serve democracy. Rabble rousing may sell more ads, but it will never make your children proud, unless you have already brainwashed them too into knee-jerk extremists.

America is for all Americans. If 49% don't agree with you, listen to them and find the middle path please. Compromise is not an illness, it is a noble insight into how to lead our country out of its challenges. Let's try that now. We are the grownups in the room.