Out here in the middle

Our political differences are about attitude more than ideology

Some views on personal evolution (excuse any self-indulgence)

For most of my adult life, I’ve thought my belief system, or “mattering map,” as my friend Virginia Postrel said, landed on the “center-right.” Limited, constitutional government focused on expanding freedom and defending the rule of law. Federalism that protects individual rights. Entrepreneurial capitalism, allowing for a social safety net. Liberal views (in the sense articulated beautifully by Deirdre McCloskey) on cultural and social policies.

Those views led to a tentative identification with the Republican Party. Democrats generally have been hostile to markets and federalism; the cultural left has grown increasingly illiberal (e.g., the sackings of James Bennet and  Donald McNeil by The New York Times). Libertarians have avoided building coalitions with people who take issue with any segment of the party dogma.

Professionally, I’m a journalist. I may have a point of view. But I’ve tried to be intellectually honest. I  don’t carry water for any party organization. I’ve never worked for a campaign. I’ve addressed local GOP and Libertarian functions to promote my employer’s work — but had a Democratic group sought me out, I would have gladly joined their discussion, too.

I’m self-employed now, so it’s even easier to represent the boss’s perspective.

People who know me are aware that I lost interest in national Republican politics when the GOP apparatus chose to embrace Donald Trump all the way to the White House and beyond. It was easy. Trump represented most things I reject or despise. He was a crony capitalist. A bully. A narcissist. Completely uninterested in civic culture or civic virtue. Ignorant of the Constitution he swore to uphold.

“But he fights!” his supporters say. Yes, for whatever he thinks will help him at a given time. Anyone who flatters him is a great friend … until that person tries to temper Trump’s impulses. Then, meet the undercarriage of the bus.

It was easy to change my party registration to unaffiliated with Trump in office. Keep my head down and focus on state issues. My Carolina Journal colleagues and I had lots to do. We had plenty of policy debates to cover — health care, the gig economy, education (the UNC System: hoo boy!), fiscal concerns, elections and redistricting, cronyism (the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, ABC regulations). COVID-19, its physical and economic devastation, along with the policy challenges it posed.

Then the presidential election came. Trump lost. But he refused to go away. If the January 6 insurrection never had occurred, his second impeachment would have been justified. He was attempting to use unconstitutional methods to overturn an election he lost. His role in encouraging people to come to D.C. on January 6 to “stop the steal” should have sealed his fate. 

It didn’t. Instead of the GOP having an internal debate over what the party should stand for, post-Trump, it has decided to stand for nothing but Trump.

Referring again to McCloskey’s definition of liberalism as adultism, the GOP, nationally, and in many states, has become the party of bratty children — and illiberalism.

Other public intellectuals I admire, including George Will, the entire staff of The Dispatch, Kevin Williamson, Yascha Mounck, and others, have made and will make these points better than I could.

This embrace of infantilism hasn’t overtaken N.C. Republican politics completely. (The Washington Post reported that the state party’s shameful decision to censure Sen. Richard Burr for his vote to convict Trump was meant to rip off the bandage, as it were. A statewide censure would preclude county party organizations from censuring him, one at a time, further embarrassing the party’s remaining adults.)

But the patient is fading. Earlier this week, Jeff Tiberii at North Carolina Public Radio dedicated his podcast to prominent Tar Heel Republicans who either have left the GOP (my friend former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr) or are hanging on because they want to continue pushing for a sane, center-right party (attorney Cat Lawson, former Greensboro council member Zack Matheny). 

Listen to the 21-minute podcast here.

Of the three, Metheny spoke mainly about policy reasons to stick with the GOP … for now. Bob talked about his disgust with the party abandoning serious internal debate between competing views and instead becoming a cult of personality. 

But Lawson hit home with me when she discussed how the GOP’s attitude has frustrated her. “The loudest voices, the most partisan voices, the most extreme voices get all the airtime” on Fox or CNN, she said. But those in the middle, “who are definitionally and temperamentally are, ‘I’m just here for the work, for what’s real and what’s substantive. I’m not going to engage in the noise’. … That helps create the perception that the middle does not exist.”

That’s it.

I’ve decided (OK, Jonah Goldberg said it much better) that “the middle” — is no longer defined by ideology. Instead, it’s temperament. It’s a commitment to “the work,” the boring, seemingly stupid work of being an adult.

Under this definition, “the middle” includes people left, right, and center who agree to treat each other respectfully, even if they have hot-and-heady disputes about how to better our lives and our culture.

Do you want to improve your neighborhood, your town, your state, your country by working with people of good will? Or would you rather get the adrenaline rush of “owning” your adversaries?

I started this newsletter because I wanted to contribute to a goal of constructive engagement. Disagreeing without being disagreeable (a clichè, to be sure, but an apt one). In a tiny way, restoring a bit of the civil in civil society. By signing up, I hope you’re somewhat intrigued by that challenge, too.

I’ll return to this theme occasionally. I welcome your thoughts.

Now, here’s the song that inspired today’s headline. It’s from the terrific songwriter James McMurtry (yes, son of Larry):

Ask Me Almost Anything is tomorrow. There’s still time to send a question!