September 18, 2013 —
Last month I wrote about the difficult effort to find the political “center”—or for that matter, to even define it. For some, this elusive center presents an opportunity, and their search is motivated by a sense that there might be advantage to be gained by formulating an attractive vision of a unifying, centrist politics. They calculate that the right person, with the right set of “non-partisan” positions, could leverage people’s frustrations with business-as-usual and draw a strong following.
For others, perhaps less cynical, the motivation comes from a perception that the increasing polarization of our political system truly has made progress impossible and has stymied meaningful action on the many issues that confront us.
This center, one supposes, would represent some kind of “middle ground” along the left/right spectrum, some place where enough people of goodwill from different sides could coalesce to reclaim power from the “extremes.”
But even if such a point of view could be coherently put forward, it would not transcend our divisions—it would only add another player to the practical and philosophical conflicts we have. Entrenched partisans, from force of habit if nothing else, would resist what they would see as betrayals of their deeply held principles.
We are an increasingly diverse nation, and I believe that when democracy is allowed to function properly, solutions can be crafted even from that diversity—because of it, not in spite of it. But to make that happen, for a government to be a government of “all the people,” then it must be rooted in a different kind of “center.”
This center is not simply a matter of compromise, or a mere averaging of extremes in the hopes of minimizing overall dissatisfaction. This center would appeal, not to our “lowest common denominators,” but rather to our “greatest common factors.”
It is not the middle of the road—it is the ground upon which the road is built.
I am speaking here of “center” in a sense that is familiar, as a matter of personal experience, to martial artists and mediators, potters and performers. It is a place of internal stillness even when one is in motion, of focused calm even in the midst of chaos. When one is in contact with this center, one is able to respond to the requirements of the moment with minimal yet perfectly appropriate effort. “The centered state,” says aikido master Thomas Crum in his excellent book, “The Magic of Conflict,” “is simple, natural and powerful.” It is a state of heightened awareness, of insightful perception, of profound integration of body, mind and spirit.
Now consider: what would it mean to govern from such a state, or to have a government that was not centralized, or even centrist, but truly, deeply centered.
Such a government would not be rigidly bound by ideology, but would be flexible and fluid. It would respond quickly, but not reflexively; it would not be easily swayed by fear, anger, or panic. It would not be monolithic, mind you—it would be broad-based and inclusive, but have effective and efficient decision-making mechanisms for identifying and balancing the various needs and interests of the different parts of society. It would able to apply the right kinds of action to the particular situation at hand, whether such action might be labeled “liberal” or “conservative.”
Best of all: beginning the creation of such a government does not have to wait for the establishment of a new party, or the issuance of a think tank proposal.
It begins when we find where the true center is: within ourselves.