In commentaries about politics, the idea of the “mushy middle” is often used as an insult. It’s depicted as a weakness, as the person who straddles it is unable to decide on a firm set of beliefs, or who tries to please everyone instead of taking a strong stand. Similarly, compromise is seen as a sign of weakness, and an inability to defeat the enemy. People who stick with their ideologies and their principles are seen as strong leaders, compared to the weak and indecisive compromisers.
However, you can see the effects of that type of thinking when you look at today’s politics. People who have different opinions are not treated as fellow citizens with different opinions-they’re seen as enemies who need to be completely crushed. Anybody who suggests that the other side might have a point, or that they might need to cooperate, is seen as a traitor and a sellout. The result has been an increasingly nasty and polarized politics, which has disgusted many people and caused them to tune out altogether. Time and again, I’ve heard people complain that the political parties spend almost all their time insulting each other, instead of outlining how people will benefit if they get elected.
The real irony in Canada is how the results of compromise are often better than the original idea. Some of the Anglophone Fathers of Confederation wanted Canada to be a plain union without any provinces, but many of the Francophone and Maritime Fathers insisted that it be a federal system, and that the provinces had specific constitutional powers. As a result, different parts of Canada have had provincial governments who can defend their interests when dealing with Ottawa, something that Albertans, for instance, can appreciate!
In the 1980s, Pierre Trudeau tried to patriate the Constitution and add in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but most of the provincial premiers only agreed to support it if the notwithstanding clause was added to the Charter. This made sure that accountable, elected officials would have the last word on many issues. The popularity of the Charter, however, ensures that the officials only use the notwithstanding clause when popular demand requires it.
The great American industrialist Andrew Carnegie once pointed out that strong men knew when to compromise, and that all principles might be compromised to serve a greater principle. Similarly, at its best the “mushy middle” avoids the headaches associated with hard-left or hard-right policies, as seen by Victorian-era capitalism or Communism. An increase in taxes doesn’t necessarily mean that the government is going to implement big socialism, and a cut to a program doesn’t automatically mean the government is taking a slash-and-burn approach. Instead, blending the best from different sides of the spectrum can ultimately be the best approach.
When they’re done right, compromise and striving for the mushy middle aren’t weaknesses-they’re strengths. Pigheadedly sticking to one ideology is not true courage. It is learning when to stand fast and when to bend, and how to blend the best from different perspectives.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on August 22, 2015.
Jared Milne is a graduate of the Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta with a Master’s Degree in Canadian Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Canadian History, minoring in Poltiical Science. He has worked as a public servant, a municipal intern and a historical researcher, and his commentaries on Canadian politics have been published in many different newspapers and websites.
2 thoughts on “We should admire compromise and the ‘mushy middle’”
Great article; thank you Jared! The big question this raises for me is: What do you think is the cause of the current trend away from compromise and towards polarization in our politics, and how do we fix it? Is it Harper’s fault? (Partly maybe, but I suspect Harper may a symptom rather than the cause.) Is it related to the fact that the 24 hour news cycle has created a sound-byte discourse that nuance isn’t particularly well suited to? In other words, do people communicate in absolutes because it is more salient? Or do you think polarization in politics is maybe just a symptom of some type of polarization in our society (e.g. income inequality, some other type of social segregation)? What do you think should be done to fix it? How can citizens and the media help? Given that we are in an election campaign, is there anything you’d like to see from the leaders (besides some general willingness to compromise, e.g. some institutional fix)?
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I think that making Senators appointed by an arms-length body (like the Libs propose) and investing more heavily in the CBC (which is unique in its mandate to promote the public interest in its coverage, rather than profitability) are two steps in the right direction. I also think the media being tougher on politicians who play wedge politics would help too. And voters of course could put character and process higher on their election-time priority lists (as I suggested in an earlier post: https://theteteatete.org/2015/03/06/why-a-politicians-character-matters-more-than-their-platform/); but this seems like a perhaps naively optimistic solution.
What do you (Jared, and the readers) think?
Great read and absolutely 100% agree that “compromise” and – wait for it – “coalition” (OMG!? YUCK!?) should not be dirty words or signs of weakness.
LikeLiked by 1 person