Our Misguided Faith in Middle Ground

On March 1, Congress failed to avert the sequestration cliff. Drastic cuts to health care, infrastructure, environmental protection, education are occurring. Why? An examination of the cause of this failure threatens to undermine one of America’s strongest held beliefs. It’s a faith that starting political debate from middle ground will produce the best policy. Our confidence in starting from the “middle” appears rooted in a collective understanding of the nation’s founding.

On September 15, 1787, the founding fathers completed the constitution convention and submitted a draft constitution for state ratification. After four months of effort, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and 52 others produced a document that has guided our nation for nearly 225 years. These men, conventional wisdom holds, were divinely inspired with a spirit collaboration and cooperation. They are nearly gods.

But the truth behind the constitution’s creation is actually far more compelling, one filled with intrigued, multiple agendas, and high drama. It may come as a surprise to many but the founding fathers were human. They carried with them passions and prejudices, expertise and ignorance. They had strengths and flaws.

Another popular misconception is the founding fathers were sent to Pennsylvania to create a new constitution; rather their mission was to amend the then guiding charter of the nation, the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles were the rules that governed the colonies during the revolution. It served that function, but was found to be cumbersome and was unlikely to secure the nation that developed during the revolution. It was feared the Articles would not prevent individual states from splitting over regional and parochial differences.

On February 1787 the continental congress endorsed the idea of a Grand Convention and gave it the mission of:”revising the articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”

However, public opinion on the need to amend the articles was not universal. “Give me liberty or Give me death” Patrick Henry as well as several other prominent signers of the Declaration of Independence refused to attend the convention for they feared it a trick. Rhode Island refused to send delegates entirely. But the remaining colonies did send delegates who convened the convention in May.

Almost before the convention’s curtain rose, the Virginia delegation took the initiative of proposing dramatic alteration to the Articles. They proposed a plan to expand individual power at the expense of the states. Meanwhile, the New Jersey delegation believed this went too far, violating the convention’s charter. New Jersey wanted to maintain a strictly state based national government.

By June the convention was at stalemate. The delegates knew a citizen-focused government and its ability to overcome local differences would succeed only under the close watch of the people. Something nearly impossible with Americans spread from New Hampshire to Georgia. Yet, the delegates also knew a state-based approach was not capable of tackling national problems. The convention was at an impasse.

Out of this impasse the Connecticut delegation put forth a compromise which proposed a hybrid national/state-based federal government. The lower house of the Congress would be citizen based, while the upper chamber would maintain state representation. While imperfect, the compromise won a majority of the delegates’ support.

This solution had come out of passionate argument, exploration, and defense of individual views. Without fervent debate, it is likely the convention would have failed with the country falling into anarchy or dictatorship.

The compromise which is hard for many present day Americans to understand, came not in spite of argument but because of it.

Today’s conventional wisdom, at least on the left side of the aisle, holds that political argument is to be avoided. Anyone strongly advocating for a particular position is labeled “partisan” or worse “obstructionist.” People with differing opinions are pressured to put aside their beliefs and start discussions from middle ground.

This mindset obsessed many left leaning members of congress and progressive non-profits as the country sought solutions to the sequestration challenge. If only all involved would put aside their partisan views the best solution would have been achieved. That it didn’t happen was due in large part because Tea Party members failed to play along. Rather, Tea Party supporters strongly advocated and defended their desire to see deep spending cuts. Meanwhile, progressives continued to push the pain of sequestration and appeal for solutions based on middle ground. The call went unheard, ultimately leading to the Tea Party-supported spending cuts becoming law.

Progressives’ blind spot, it appears, is a belief that middle ground simply exists and like magic it comes forth if only enough good people believe in it. However American history shows middle ground doesn’t exist to be conjured out of netherworld; it is created by real people through the process of hard debate.

The United States’ constitution was born out of battle. Since then, meaningful social progress such as women’s suffrage or civil rights also came as the result of vigorous argument. Like a child’s immune system which gains strength by exposure to germs and viruses, the American body politic is strengthened through its exposure to conflict. Today’s hyper fixation on avoiding conflict leads to poor thinking and ultimately bad policy. For the benefit of the country, we must abandon our faith in starting all political discussion from the mythical middle ground. Rather we should follow the lead of our founding fathers and embrace the value of spirited argument.