It’s all too easy to paint any issue as a simple battle between two extremes, with one side being the forces of good and the other forces of evil.

While that was true at times in American history (slavery was clearly evil), and may still be true in foreign policy (corrupt dictatorships are always bad), it’s rarely – if ever – an accurate portrayal of contemporary policy discussions. America is a robust, mature, stable democracy; we’re thoroughly capable of discussing public policy without portraying the opposition as the enemy – or, at least, we ought to be. That’s what will ensure the preservation of our democracy for generations to come.

Yet, for partisan forces on both sides, the good-versus-evil motif is often the go-to framing used to describe any debate. That’s certainly an easy story to tell; just ask Disney, which has built a multibillion-dollar empire around that trope. It gets you clicks on opinion pieces and ratings on cable TV news just as readily as it sells Star Wars and Marvel films.

This approach used to be more prevalent for social issues, but lately it’s been expanded to include what should be mundane policy debates. The problem with this motif is that, while entertaining, it freezes debate in place and locks out reasonable points of view to the benefit of the extremists.

Take the multigenerational debate over abortion rights. A middle ground was certainly possible on this issue: supporting abortion rights, but leaving it largely up to the states. The intervention of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade seemingly took this approach off the table, but it didn’t entirely.

Abortion rights supporters could have further cemented that ruling by passing constitutional amendments at the state level ensuring access to abortion in their own states, regardless of how the federal judiciary changed in the future. Maine recently took a similar approach with the Affordable Care Act, passing state-level legislation as a backup in case the federal law was ever overturned. The problem with this idea, of course, is that it would have essentially neutralized the issue in federal races in those states and made it less polarized nationally over time. While that’s better for the country as a whole, it’s harder for political strategists on both sides.

Leaving progress on social issues up to the states might seem like a risky proposition, but it’s been working well so far for the legalization of marijuana. In fewer than 10 years, legalization advocates have gone from their first adult recreational-use victories at the ballot box  in Washington state and Colorado to 18 states and Washington, D.C., legalizing it for use by those 21 and over. Another 18 states have legalized it for medicinal purposes. And the division isn’t particularly ideological, nor is it partisan: Montana, which Donald Trump carried by over 16 percentage points in 2020, has legalized recreational use. As more states have changed their laws, the issue has become increasingly less political and ideological, and there’s been bipartisan progress at the federal level as well. Where the bipartisan consensus used to be against any form of legalization, gradually a bipartisan consensus is emerging in favor of reform.

Part of the key to progress on any issue is the engagement of centrists on the topic. It’s all too easy for centrists to check out of the debate when they see extremists start to yell over it. That’s an understandable reaction, but it’s exactly the wrong approach for them to take. Instead, when the far left and the far right start to villainize one another, centrists need to step in as the adult in the room.

This approach has been justified by a recent study of voter ID laws published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that they did little either to prevent fraud or to suppress turnout. Essentially, it showed the arguments made by both sides on voter ID were probably wrong; the law’s actual impact, if any, has been slight.

Rather than screaming at one another, both parties could be working together to make sure that we have elections that are both accessible and secure. That would be a far better approach than either side rewriting election laws solely in response to Trump’s misrepresentations about the election. Unfortunately, without any voice of reason stepping up, the debate on this and other issues will continue to be dominated by extremists hell-bent on dividing this country for their own gain.

It’s never easy to be that voice of reason, but if more moderates don’t start doing it, our democracy really will be in peril.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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