Stuck in the Middle

Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.1

I’m caught, as the English say, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

To be heard today, you must be categorically categorizable, and you must speak with fourth grade diction. You must fit neatly into the relational database. You must wear matching designer blue jeans and a blue American Apparel shrinkwrap T-shirt. Or you must wear a ruby red cummerbund under your red velvet smoking jacket. We have no time for proponents of positions; we need exponents of extremes. We need ratings. We need eyeballs and likes and hashtags and click-throughs.

The winners shill syrupy sentimentality and sophomoric logic. And the consumer public is buying. In this world we’re faced with differential calculus problems, and yet the star students boast of their mastery of multiplication tables. Our powdered pundits must be brash, transparently partisan, and hardwired for four-hour win-at-all-costs diatribes five days per week.

And that is American political culture today. Ideological fringes flex their biceps to distract us from their double chins and chicken legs. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, alliances of interest fight over bone china place settings along the campaign trail and for parking spaces in the Capitol garage.

Political alignment now happens in a simple two-by-two matrix. Along the X-axis, you have socially liberal and socially conservative. Along the Y-axis, you have economically liberal and economically conservative. That’s it. Those are your four options.

Blue Dog Democrats and Moderate Republicans, today’s version of Dixiecrats and Rockefeller Republicans, claim to be centrist, but they’re still bound by the vectors of fiscal and social policy.

Check only one: __ Milton Friedman or __ John Maynard Keynes

Check only one: __ the Bible or __ the ACLU

Stand on or near any of the dividing lines between quadrants at your peril. You will have stepped outside of your box. You will have trespassed. You will have violated the rules of playground foursquare. There is no middle in foursquare.

I guess I should not call myself a centrist or a moderate, because those have become nasty things to be in America. Centrist means having no convictions, no anchor, no guts. To be a moderate is to admit being a flip-flopping, le’go-my-Eggo, finger-to-the-wind politico. Though both terms mean inhabiting the middle, that’s about as safe nowadays as riding a pink bicycle down the double yellow line on a shoulderless country highway.

No wonder our politicans can’t meet in the middle. The middle has been run out of town on a high-speed rail project.

The middle is meh with a touch of bleh.

The middle is a ghost town where even the tumbleweeds look worn out.

The middle is for political amoebas like Bill Clinton, who would triangulate and recalculate until the polls gave him a high-five and a hug.

The middle is for strategists like Karl Rove to exploit with sonorous slogans like “compassionate conservative,” “no child left behind,” and “crossroads.”

The middle is no man’s land. It’s not “both sides of the aisle”; it’s the aisle itself, and it’s a place to get trampled by braying donkeys and stomping elephants.

The middle is for people who call themselves “severely conservative” and who pass healthcare reform as governor.

The middle is populated by the barely-engaged, half-asleep swing voter nodding off to the glow of incendiary attack ads in a culturally-divided swing state.

The middle is a cross between Nixon’s “silent majority” and Occupy Wall Steet’s “99%” and Sarah Palin’s “real America.” Wherever that is.

The middle is Switzerland divided by Missouri and multiplied by Canada.

The middle is for those whose lives have been “deeply affected” by their religious beliefs but not enough to discuss them in public.

The middle is a porterhouse steak tossed into shark-infested primary elections.

The middle is lukewarm, and nothing ruins a tea party like lukewarm tea.

The middle is for snooty insider incumbents who don’t stand an electoral chance against slash-and-burn populist ideologues.

Perhaps one day the middle will no longer be the brownfield of political zoning. Maybe we will call it something cool like the Crux, the Interface, the Golden Mean. Or maybe we will call it what American colonists used to call a community park open to all: the Common.

The Common will become a rational turd in a boiling, polarizing punch bowl.

The Common will be the ideological home of statesmen and great compromisers.

The Common will be the front porch full of old-fogies who think that attack ads and smear campaigns are repugnant and disgraceful.

The Common will be for pollsters and pundits who refuse to enlist in partisan piracy.

The Common will be the preferred framework for junior high civics teachers seeking to instill respect for democracy in impressionable teenagers.

The Common will be for those who aim at both-and before settling for either-or.

But until that day comes, steer clear of the middle. It’s dangerous out there.

  1. From “Stuck in the Middle with You,” 1972, by Stealers Wheel.
About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. That article was a thing of beauty, Ben.  🙂

  2.  Great article, Ben.  I’ve always wondered why people label themselves (or have others do the labeling) the way they do? What makes someone “Left”? What makes a person a “Republican”? What about “Middle”? Can a person who subscribes to the fiscal tenants of the Tea Party support gay marriage? Can a person who frequents an Occupy movement rally support Mitt Romney for President?  Left, right, or middle (whatever those are any more), I think it’s important for people to look at others as individuals, each with their own views, values, and perspectives, AND that while we can disagree, we don’t have to be disagreeable.