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This week I read another opinion piece bemoaning the disappearance of political centrists.

The few remaining Republican centrists were pushed aside by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and they have become increasingly irrelevant as the party consolidates behind the president.

Some hoped Democrats might claim the political center, but it is becoming increasingly clear that is not going to happen. Most of the well-known Democratic candidates for president are running a broadly socialist campaign, supporting proposals like Medicare-for-all, free college tuition and the Green New Deal.

Yet, there is something misguided about the talk of a vanishing political center, as if there are only two directions of political orientation: right and left.

The problem with this way of thinking is that there never was a coalition of people embracing a coherent set of policies halfway between contemporary liberals and conservatives.

The disappearing voice in politics today is not centrism but traditionalism. Along with that voice, certain ways of thinking about the common good are disappearing as well.

Traditionalists believe that the heart of any society lies in its middle institutions—relatively stable social groups that serve as intermediaries between the individual and the state. They are institutions like the family, the neighborhood, the church, the school, the library, the local news organization and the service club.

Although traditionalists care about what laws are passed and what policies are implemented, they are more concerned with how these things are done. They value opportunities to participate meaningfully in organizational life, to have a genuine say in what happens in their communities and to the groups to which they belong.

In short, traditionalists care about how power is distributed. They are distrustful of anyone who claims they will be better off if more power is given to fewer people, whether that is big government or big business.

While the political left seeks to transfer more power to the federal government, the political right seeks to transfer more power to large corporations.

Traditionalists disagree with the orientation of both the right and the left. They do not want to move power up to the next level, whether that means bigger government or bigger business. Instead, they want to move power down so that it resides chiefly in middle institutions, and that is important for several reasons:

The first is that middle institutions develop organically, as ways of securing common goods — certain human needs unattainable by individuals acting on their own. Without those institutions, people at risk become even more vulnerable. This is especially obvious as one thinks of the many ways healthy families, neighborhoods, and local schools nurture and protect children in ways neither government agencies nor corporations can.

The second reason is that middle institutions provide opportunities for people to be engaged in meaningful projects. They provide times, places and means by which people gather around common interests and goals. Without healthy middle institutions in which to participate, people are more likely to become civically disengaged.

The third reason is that middle institutions respond to the needs of particular communities. They are small enough to listen to the voices of their members while also large enough to accomplish things on a scale individuals cannot manage alone.

The fourth reason, and perhaps the most important, is that middle institutions develop trust. Trust grows from family, to neighborhood, to community, to region, to nation.

It develops incrementally, from smaller to larger; it never develops in the other direction. This is as true in society as it is in biology: the health of higher, more complex systems is dependent on healthy functioning of lower, simpler systems.

As we enter upon a year and a half long campaign for the 2020 elections, candidates will be talking about the big changes they want to make, about national reforms and large-scale initiatives.

Few ordinary citizens will have any meaningful input into these proposals. Think tanks and lobbying groups will set out the policy outlines and talking points; they will draft legislation and design marketing campaigns.

Because it is hard to get people engaged where there is no power or involvement, the successful candidates will resort to stirring up strong emotions, like anger, fear and resentment. This is not a recipe for creative, productive and wise deliberation.

The cure for this persistent cycle of destructive politics is to reinvest in the middle institutions at the core of local communities. The emotions evoked when one contributes meaningfully in community life are pride, joy and compassion. The strength of democracy resides here.

Three questions you can ask when evaluating the merits of political proposals:

  • Will this proposal, if enacted, increase or decrease local autonomy?
  • Does this proposal require active participation by ordinary citizens in order to succeed?
  • Has this proposal developed from the bottom up or from the top down?

For a healthy society, we do not need more centrists willing to compromise between big government and big business. We need people who understand that our nation’s integrity lies in the middle region, where people are names and not just numbers.

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.

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(23) comments

johnnybragatti

Not all white guys old or new(young) are suffering from severe anger issues.A well known neighbor, who is around 85 years young, seems more like 21 to 40 or so, with his compassion level, view of life. The biggest current problems within America are Right Wing generated and no where else.
Ever heard of :"State Run Television",?... known as Fox ?, the one that was actually going to called : "Trump TV". Notice the Trump tweets and the relation to Fox News reports and it is above and beyond scary.
Alies started the gig 30+ years ago and are still "dumbing down"the folks. Along with the pathological hatred of the Clintons and accompanying falsified reports, day in and day out, it shows that stupid cannot always be fixed.

Rick Czeczok

I get a kick out of these socialist blaming everything on the right. Do you really believe that democrats have all the answers? If so then why are they moving to socialism? If they are that great why the huge move. In the wrong direction I believe. Be careful what you ask for because it may just happen, and I guarantee you won't like the New Socialist USA. I hope I never live to see the ruin of this great country by the Socialist party (what was once the democratic party). The middle democrats better wake up. Pelosi has lost the party to the two little girls, she is so afraid of. Another thing bright ones; how is it that Bernie can run as a democrat when he is a registered independent?

oldhomey

In spirit I can embrace what Mr. Kyte is saying, but as a practical matter, I am left a little puzzled. We can't always rely on local, grassroots, "middle ground", traditional local institutions to to institute and oversee policies that will have impact on all segments of society. We have to have central leadership on a national level to make and enforce policies that protect our air, water, environment, drug manufacture, workplace conditions and safety, ability to vote and so on and on. Grassroots organizations obviously are instrumental in pressuring for and supporting those sorts of political activities, so that local engagement is absolutely critical. It is also absolutely critical that traditionalist people "in the middle" are able to easily access the sort of accurate information needed to make those decisions, but that access weirdly is now more difficult to sort through and find in our new, badly misnamed "information age".

A case in point. The internet-driven, minute-by-minute, 24-hour news cycle that constantly demands new, strong "narratives" to grab attention I think often paints a false picture of prevailing public opinion.

Ten years or so ago the tea party movement, certainly a minority among traditional GOP voters, got so much constant media attention that it would steamroller its way into seizing the Republican Party. And, despite, I am guessing, it still being a minority in the GOP, it is firmly in control of the party, far more radical in its intentions than most Americans would want to see the nation go.

Now the new thing is the very photogenic Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, an extremely smart, articulate woman with scant political experience. She beat out a powerful old-line traditionalist Democrat for his congressional seat.

Her district is one that is in the middle of NYC, hardly the typical congressional district in terms of political philosophy compared to the rest of the country. But we are now inundated with stories about the shift of the Democratic Party to the extreme left, buttressed with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez' views and the views of other prominent Democratic would-be potential presidential candidates who now think the ticket to winning is to mouth the most extreme left policies. It is like there can be no other territory any more that any Democratic candidate can occupy except a more radical left one.

I wonder. My guess is that the traditionalists that Mr. Kyte talks about are still in the majority in both parties, and they are not going to be pleased with the direction either party is taking. Will the traditionalists have any meaningful voice left if the political dynamics in the "information age" continue as they are? We are obviously in a whole new, evolving world brought on by the digital age, and it is not clear what these new dynamics are and how they will define future politics, but I worry a lot that it is not entirely good.

Redwall

I dont disagree with much of Mr Kyte's essay on the value of tradition. But in a society where "tradition" is actively pushed aside in contempt as the product of "Old White Men" what else can be expected but its downward spiral?

Care to name a Catholic university not actively engaged the industry of self-loathing? From Georgetown to Notre Dame, they are tripping over one another to satisfy the rising Left.

"It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking progressive" wrote Charles Peguy.

martian2

yes many traditions should be pushed to the wayside. Used to be tradition that women didn't vote, or that minorities should be denied that right too. Used to be tradition that women were to stay at home, that is blown out of the water these days. Everything from traditional teaching methods to military traditions have changed. Society is always changing, language changes, and cultures evolve. You may not want change, it can be scary, but if we are to do better we must change, like we always have.

oldhomey

Thank you, martian, for your wonderful, on-point response to Red, and for your earlier, 6:15am observations. I am an old white man, but I cheer and applaud daily the inroads that traditional institutions like the church and higher education make against hatred of the sort that Red espouses.

PhysicsIsFun

Democrats are often called progressive. Progressives seek to implement change. They want to change things which need improvement. Conservatives want to keep things as they are. It does not matter if those things are wrong. Conservatives are usually those in charge, and they they want to keep things as they are, because it benefits them. Even though it often times hurts others. Those being hurt and fair minded people who care about others strive for improvement.

DMoney

How come no prominent Democrat/progressive/liberal figures are living the life of a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat/progressive/liberal? Funny how that works. I don't see any of them (or most average liberals) truly practicing what the preach. I see them living the same lives as any declared conservative. Are the only TRUE liberals/progressives the poor? Why hasn't there been a massive movement on scale with occupy wall st or the tea party where all liberal/progressives pool resources? Why doesn't Hillary Clinton simply pretend there exists a wealth tax and donate the same percentage that she'd have to pay in taxes? If every rich liberal did that--millions would have medical care, subsidized everything. Millions of lives would improve.

The day I see a group of liberal/progressives walk the walk, starting with their own lives, is the day I truly question my political leaning.

DMoney

Until that day there are two major political parties in my eyes: Republicans and Hypocrites

capedcrusader

Three major parties. Democrats, Republicans, NRA.

oldhomey

D, you seem to suppose that Democrats by definition are anti-capitalist. I have a wide circle of friends, both Republicans and Democrats, some far-right, some far beyond me in leftist tendencies. But every single one of them is a committed capitalist. Many are extremely successful in their careers, and they enjoy the fruits of that success, whether Republican or Democrat. Why do you begrudge people that? Are there other assumptions of yours that need correcting? If you display them here, I will be happy to correct them for you.

capedcrusader

oldhomey - there are several on here that support capitalism when it fits their vision of it. They just hate WalMart and Amazons vision of it.

Redwall

Life is so simple for you, isnt it?

DMoney

Used to be tradition that Democrats supported slavery and sought separation from the Union. A Republican president by the name of Lincoln, who most decidedly was not afraid of change, decided to help end that. Things do change, indeed.

oldhomey

" Things do change, indeed."

Yup. You finally got something right, D. About 158 years ago the Democratic Party was the party of the pro-slavery southern states. Things change, and the Democratic Party bears no resemblance to the party then. And back then the Republican Party was just organizing as a new party around the principle of abolition of slavery. It represented change back then. Now it has changed into the party of anti-change. That is why the Democrats now have so many people in Congress representing people of varying color, religion, sexual orientation and economic strata, as opposed to the unchanging GOP, which is now unhinged by the presence of these people in Congress. Guess which party seems most destined to slip under the wave of history if it cannot soon learn how to embrace change?

DMoney

As these minorities, atheists, youth, gays become mainstream and take the financial reigns of the traditionally middle aged, white males as the upper-middle and upper classes, I'm sure they will learn to appreciate and value conservative ideals. In the past 3 months, I've had lengthy conversations with several immigrants who are wealthy. One was an elderly Italian lady. She owns the largest chain of Italian restaurants in the eastern Midwest. She was the most ardent Trump supporter I've ever met. A female Italian-American. I met another immigrant from England--an older white male but a recent immigrant. We sat together playing blackjack for about 3 hours. I pretended to be politically neutral. His conservative colors showed big time, up until he left the table and let loose a "Make America Great Again!" The rest of the players booed (all white males with enough spare money to be gambling, despite being apparent hard strapped liberals). I sat at a bar recently with a young black male in Hollywood, CA. We talked for about an hour. He hates Trump the man but voted for conservatives his entire life because he wanted to be "left alone" in his life, not interfered with and pandered to by politicians he's never met and who don't know him or his life.

All of this personal, recent experience with people of all backgrounds and different areas tells me--as if I already didn't know--political stance is not based on anything besides one's standing within society and how much they value their position and worth. This will not change, as more and more people enter and remain in the middle/upper class.

capedcrusader

What a touching story. Almost like a dream.

DMoney

I don't care what you believe, but of you go through life simply not believing anything that's inconvenient, you will miss a lot of opportunities to change and adapt.

oldhomey

caped, your 9:13pm post made me burst out in laughter. I was just about to make one of my much too long replies to D, but seeing yours, I figure 'nuff said.

DMoney

Your disbelief shows your ignorance. I'd respect it more if you could counter with your own, recent examples.

Redwall

Giving women the vote was a constitutional amendment passed by congress and ratified by at least 75% of the States. One might argue it took too long but it received mainstream support.

The wacko comments on this article seem to prove out Mr. Kyte's thesis.

capedcrusader

Who do you think Liberty, Brigham Young, Bob James, Lee, Weber State, Oral Roberts, Utah State, and Viterbo are trying to satisfy?

martian2

"Think tanks and lobbying groups will set out the policy outlines and talking points; they will draft legislation and design marketing campaigns." Lobbying groups already have grabbed power and are making policy decisions now. As of Thursday:
The department of defense is being run by a former Boeing executive.
The environmental protection agency is being run by a former coal lobbyist.
Health and human services department is being run by a former pharmaceutical lobbyist.
The department of the interior is being run by a former oil industry lobbyist.
Welcome to cronyism in 2019. Now you know who really owns the reigns of power in government.

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