Editorial: Caught between the fringes

  • American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks AP

Thursday, May 17, 2018

‘Americans are being held hostage and terrorized by the fringes. That’s what’s going on here. It’s not like 50 percent of Americans thinks one thing and 50 percent thinks another thing. No, 15 percent on each side are effectively controlling the conversation and 70 percent of us don’t hate each other.”

The person speaking is Arthur Brooks, president of the “center-right” American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with Politico Magazine this week. We recommend that you read his entire conversation with Politico senior political correspondent Tim Alberta (which you can find here: politi.co/2wBlk8G), but in the meantime we thought we would highlight some of his observations and offer our own.

Brooks’s math regarding the fringes seems pretty accurate – and the fringe dwellers certainly are vocal. If you were to use only Twitter and online comments to assess the nation’s political divide, you would quickly reach the conclusion that America was made up of two warring factions. But the real silent majority is the 70 percent that Brooks is referring to – the people who don’t reflexively hate those with whom they disagree politically. The math tells us that some voted for Donald Trump and some voted for Hillary Clinton.

“The fringe picked up the football and ran off with it,” Brooks said. “But there’s going to be a backlash. If I have anything to say about it, there’s going to be a backlash of people who say that your radical, hateful views, and I’m no liberal, but I don’t hate liberals. I refuse to hate liberals. Refuse. I think there’s a lot of Americans that want to join me in that.”

That is our sense, too. The vast majority of people we hear from at the newspaper or encounter out in the world, Republicans and Democrats alike, shake their head at all the vitriol. Sure, they have their beliefs about how the country should be run and by whom, but there’s not much interest in the kind of political scapegoating that is the bread and butter of the fringes and party mouthpieces. Those who make up the 70 percent believe their side, whatever side that may be, has the better product – and that’s where they gently place their faith.

“It turns out it’s easier in the political process when people are suffering a lot to say somebody came and got your stuff,” Brooks said. “Whether it’s immigrants or whether it’s trading partners or whether it’s bankers or whatever.”

It is easier, and that’s why it’s embraced by populists on the left and right. When times are tough, few people would be fired up to vote for a candidate who sincerely says, “This problem is complicated and will require hard, honest work on both sides of the aisle” when they hear, “These are the people responsible for your problems.”

“I’m way more bullish on politicians than I ever was before,” Brooks said. “They’re not perfect; they’re guys like you and me. They have to make hard decisions, they have to choose between impossible alternatives all day long. ‘I got this shitty alternative, I’ve got this shitty alternative.’ Then you pick the least shitty alternative and then you get yelled at for choosing a shitty alternative. It’s a really hard job.”

Our appreciation for politicians has grown over time as well. Most of the ones we have met are genuinely interested in being public servants, and very few fit the negative party stereotypes they are saddled with. Unfortunately, the hyper-partisanship of their own party leaders isn’t much help in that regard. In press release after press release, op-ed after op-ed, political scapegoating wins the day. Meanwhile, the fringes dig in deeper.

With fingers crossed, we leave the final word to Brooks: “The Republican and Democratic Party at the federal level are struggling to find their way. There are issues with the presidency that we haven’t seen in a while. But this country is just rock-solid. It’s going to be okay.”