UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Stuck in the Middle

Country singer Scott McCreery sings about how he is “not all holy water and not all Jim Beam,” but he’s “somewhere in between.” That’s kinda like many people in the United States of America. And, interestingly, that “in between” perspective accurately describes the political views and affiliations of Americans, who are generally a moderate center-right bunch and more likely independent voters, unaffiliated with either major party. Unfortunately, the two-party system in our age of divisive politics has left no middle ground. It seems there is no in-between anymore. 

I recently saw an editorial cartoon of a man holding two different boxes of Girl Scout cookies as he stands at a table, asking which are the Republican and which are the Democrat cookies. It’s satire, of course, but not actually far off from the feelings of too many Americans. It’s literally become that absurd. People have started to act as if the clothes they wear, the beer they drink, the entertainment they watch, and sadly even the neighborhoods where they live are either one party or another. Too many Americans believe there are just two sides to every issue, and one is always right and the other is always wrong. 

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I can recall numerous times when my dad would say, “I still haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for yet.” That might be surprising to anyone who knew my father after the late nineties, when it appeared he was a one-ideology-straight-party-ticket voter. Yet, he had been registered as both a Democrat and a Republican at different times in his life. I recall when I first heard the pejorative term RINO, which stands for “Republican in Name Only,” and it struck me as the most ridiculous idea. 

The idea of party purity and straight-ticket voting is in many ways the opposite of freedom. The idea that voters and candidates don’t feel like they have the autonomy to decide issues and choose leaders based on their individual merits as opposed to preconceived alignment seems counterintuitive in a country and political system based on individual rights. Unfortunately, many independent, free-thinking voters feel “stuck in the middle” between two political parties which are neither truly liberal nor conservative and which don’t really seem to know or care what those terms actually mean. 

In the 1960s and 70s, party unity on roll call votes in Congress averaged about 60%, with representatives voting the party line just under two-thirds of the time. Similar percentages could be found among voters aligning with just one party. However, by 2020 the roll call vote had reached highs of 95%. That’s simply not healthy for a democratic republic. Too many representatives are clearly not voting their conscience nor are they actually representing all their constituents. In “safe voting districts,” where the incumbents have 60% of the vote and never face a challenge, 40% of their constituents are effectively disenfranchised. That is terrible for America. It can lead to people feeling they must leave their communities and even states to go live where they have a  voice and where they are with “people like them.”

As an educator, I believe it’s difficult to teach kids to simply think critically and develop their own opinions when they don’t see that modeled anywhere else. Teachers should teach students how to think, not what to think. Yet, everywhere else students are told what to think by leaders and role models who have narrow, inflexible ideas. While Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are firmly opposed to re-nominating Donald Trump, they can hardly urge a vote for Democrats after they’ve spent their careers demonizing the other party. Similarly, it’s difficult for leaders like Hakeem Jeffries or Chuck Shumer to concede opposition to Joe Biden or progressive politics when they’ve spent a career claiming Democrats are the only answer.

The new independent political organization called the No Labels Party is designed to unite moderate Democrats, Republicans, and middle-of-the-road independents, giving a voice and option to those who feel stuck in the middle. These voters are neither Fox News nor MSNBC, and they see the current political climate as “clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right.” Sadly, the nature of contemporary politics suggests third parties have no legitimate chance in a system designed to protect the major parties. This will continue to disenfranchise and alienate all those who are feeling somewhere in between.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com