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posted: 10/17/2013 5:00 AM

The marvelous middle

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This just in from a new Esquire/NBC News study: There are more Americans in the vast middle than on either the left or right.

Who didn't know?

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Certainly those Americans who dwell in The Great Big Center have known this for some time. They bump into each other all day long in the great big country we call "outside the Beltway." Yet, judging by current events in Washington, you'd imagine reality to be a clash of titanic proportions. More accurately, it is a clash of titanic distortions.

This is not to say centrists always agree with each other but overall, disagreement is by degrees of difference rather than ideological chasms. They are diverse in spirit and political leanings, if not so much in pigmentation. Most, according to the study, are "pretty white." They are Democrat, Republican and independent. But what they share is greater than the sum of the extreme parts. Mostly they share a disdain of ideological purity.

What they lack is organization and perhaps self-awareness. There really are enough of them to change the political climate -- if only there were someone to harness and channel what I would call their normalcy.

By "normal," I mean that centrists like to keep as much of their hard-earned cash as possible, but want to help the helpless. They tend to prefer a laissez-faire attitude toward their neighbors, assuming no one's making child porn next door or beating up the spouse and kids. Want to get married? Please. Need an abortion? Fine, but three months is plenty of time to figure it out. People who want to smoke pot in the privacy of their own home do not belong in jail.

Would this be such a strange world?

To the harder-core constituents both left and right, such people have no convictions, hence the derogative "squishy middle." But lacking the desire to participate in million-something marches, or stacking barricades in front of the White House, or waving some symbol of self-anointed righteousness does not necessarily make one squishy or uninterested. It might make one too sane for politics. It might make one too mature for rabble. It might also mean that you no longer believe you can have a positive effect on the insanity.

Two words: Critical mass. There is power in numbers.

So who are these centrists? This is the real news from the Esquire/NBC poll, which was conducted by pollsters from the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns. The surveyors identified four pods of individuals who share a patriotic view of the U.S., believe in meritocracy (against affirmative action) and are largely libertarian: Pickup Populists (as in "Duck Dynasty" fans); MBA (highly educated); Minivan Moderates (busy with kids); and, Whateverman (the cynical young who can't stand any of us).

These are folks, in other words, one might not invite to the same dinner party. Yet they are constituents of a grand, gray base -- neither red nor blue nor even purple but vaguely reminiscent of a time when everyone was more or less on the same page.

Centrists would rather not discuss guns or God. Thirty-four percent reported owning a gun compared to 62 percent who do not. A majority -- 45 percent -- think background checks are fine. Only 29 percent say that religion and prayer are important to them. Even so, these folks are not heartless. Forty-four percent strongly support increasing the minimum wage and only 8 percent strongly oppose.

As for our current shutdown/spending dilemma, the center is clear: The federal government should spend less and go light on regulation.

For now, more trust Democrats than they do Republicans, hardly surprising given circumstances. Fully 58 percent are pessimistic about politics in this country, but they trust Democrats (and Oprah!) more than Republicans. Of all the GOP leaders, only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received more than 1 percent (2 percent) in the trust sweeps. Oprah got 6 percent, Jon Stewart and Colin Powell each got 1 percent, as did Billy Graham. Rush Limbaugh got 0 percent. Obama won with 9 percent.

The take-away from this poll -- and others showing that more Americans self-identify as independent than Democrat or Republican -- is that the country is not as divided as one would imagine. The challenge for the moderate middle is to create an organizing principle -- all things in moderation? -- and produce a centrist, nonideological, pragmatic leader, preferably one un-indebted to billionaires or radio babbleheads.

A dream, perhaps, but wouldn't it be marvey?

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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