The Misconception of the Middle

It sounds so great: “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The problem, maybe my problem, is that it’s hard to know where the middle is of almost anything.


Suppose, for example, you are asked to identify where the geographic middle of America is. You might say Missouri or Kansas. But what if I reminded you that Hawaii is part of America? Does the “middle” then move somewhere toward California? And where is the middle if I ask you to include Alaska in your map?


In American politics, we’ve come to divide the world into R’s and D’s, and everyone is placed somewhere on a one-dimensional continuum. But how do we neatly place everyone along that continuum: deficit hawks; abortion opponents; insurrectionists; socialists; capitalists; free marketers; defund the police advocates; defund the IRS advocates; originalists; textualists; isolationists; environmentalists; labor unionists; etc. etc?


The idea of “the middle” is convenient but troublesome. It oversimplifies our thinking and does not unite us but may psychologically prepare us for division. If everything can be placed somewhere along a one-dimensional line on which a middle can be pinpointed, then we are blocked from seeing where we may disagree with someone on one issue but find agreement on another…because it’s us against them, left versus right, fascists against the socialists. A one-dimensional continuum invites polarization.


On a recent call-in radio program (hosted by someone not named Smerconish) the host referred to CNN as a left-leaning network. A caller later told the host he sounded as if he were making a factual statement and asked if he believed he was making a statement of fact or a statement of opinion. He quickly admitted that he was expressing an opinion. Fair enough. But the convenient characterization of CNN as left-leaning, sounding as though there factually is such a thing, invites argumentative responses.


This occurs because identification of the “middle” of any continuum depends on where the ends are perceived to be anchored. Does CNN seem “left-leaning” only because “right-leaning” networks have moved their anchor, requiring the replacement of the perceived “middle?”


Let’s turn to a recent example that illustrates how thinking in left-right terms can be counter-productive, even despite efforts to meet in the “middle.” Democrats have been criticized for advocating for defunding the police. At the same time, Democrats have criticized Republicans for trying to block funding for additional IRS agents. But aren’t police and IRS agents both essentially law enforcement personnel? Isn’t it important to enforce all laws? Who would want the chaos that would occur without police officers and IRS agents? But many political leaders (Democrats and Republicans and probably their supporters), get caught up in us-them thinking and become unable to see the essential government function of enforcing all laws. The argument should not be about funding but rather about what the laws should be. What is our underlying interest is the question.


Another obvious example of the difficulty of fitting everything into a “right-left” frame is the reality that people can be socially “liberal” and fiscally “conservative.” I do not intend to imply that our political leaders do not understand these complexities at all. Both Democrats and Republicans are well aware that their elected members have many disparate interests, and forming coalitions with the parties can be as difficult as gaining consensus between the parties. America’s two-party system, however, probably invites polarization in ways that parliamentary systems do not, but that’s for another article.


Let’s examine still one more recent event: the Supreme Court Dobbs decision. After the Court decided that the right to abortion was not in our Constitution, the issue was left to the states. Then, Kansas, known generally as a right-leaning state, voted overwhelmingly to enshrine abortion rights in its Constitution. And in the recent mid-term elections voters affirmed that position in several red and blue states alike. (See how easy it is to communicate simplistically with terms such as “red” and “blue?”)


But the argument that there should be a legal right to obtain an abortion can be viewed as either conservative or liberal, depending on how the argument is framed. Abortion opponents in Kansas clearly misunderstood the complexity of the issue. They appeared to assume that “conservatives” would support them and remove abortion rights from the Kansas Constitution. I believe Kansas women did vote “conservative.” They voted for their belief that they should make decisions about their own bodies without government interference…a matter of protecting individual rights.


So what is the takeaway? Ranked choice voting might allow voters to select an independent or a libertarian, but we are not likely headed toward a parliamentary system. So we’ll continue to have R’s and D’s and conservatives and liberals. But our news media and commentators should press politicians to state not only their policy positions but also the principles and interests underlying those policies.


In other words, candidates for office should be asked to identify what “conservatism” and “liberalism” mean. If candidates say they believe in law and order, then it’s fair to ask why defunding the police is different from defunding the IRS. Or, if candidates say they believe in equal rights and social justice, then it’s fair to ask how giving racial preferences is consistent with such a belief.


In his book on negotiation, “Getting to Yes,” Roger Fisher emphasized the importance of focusing on “interests” rather than “positions.” Focusing on positions creates polarization and conflict. It turns out that people have common interests: safety, opportunity, economic security, fairness, and freedom.  Media personalities could draw on the wisdom of Fisher’s book and in doing so would help the public understand what political candidates are actually interested in. When the real interest is keeping donors happy, the conflict between positions and fundamental values will be revealed.


And I should add that I’m not especially interested in a “middle” if it means average safety, opportunity, economic security, fairness, or freedom. On these issues, I’m extreme. I don’t want to be “stuck in the middle” with anyone.


George A. Harris, Ph.D

George A. Harris, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Kansas City. He previously worked in vocational rehabilitation and corrections. He was a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections and was an associate professor of criminal justice at Washburn University before entering private practice providing pre-employment evaluations for police and correctional agencies and expert witness evaluations for attorneys.

He is the author of numerous books and articles for professional and public audiences, including Counseling the Involuntary and Resistant Client and Broken Ears, Wounded Hearts, which was awarded best book of 1984 by President Reagan’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He served on the reader advisor panel for the Kansas City Star. He was a founding board member of L’Arche Heartland, a group home organization for people with developmental disabilities, and along with then police chief Jim Corwin founded a task force on homelessness in Kansas City.

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