The nomination of Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the Supreme Court is the latest in the usage of a cliché of American politics, concerns over what is “mainstream.” Rachel Maddow referred to Gorsuch as “a relatively mainstream choice that you might expect from any Republican president” on her MSNBC show, resulting in a flurry of commentary from right-wing media, and herein is illustrated the reality of America’s political life.
Note that Maddow regard’s Trump’s nominee as in the mainstream from Republicans. The word, mainstream, has been in English since the seventeenth century, meaning the “principal current of a river,” and it acquired the figurative sense of “prevailing direction in opinion, popular taste, etc.” from Thomas Carlyle in his writing in 1831.
The original sense of the word, the “principal current of a river,” is the one that guides the assumptions being made in our thinking. The term, mainstream media, entered American politics in the waning days of the Carter administration, and when someone uses that phrase, what is typically meant is an opposition to some other kind of opinion that is outside the central flow. Depending on the point of view of the user, that can be seen as good or bad, but it’s taken as accepted that there is a single river that we all use as the reference line.
And that assumption is now more than ever lacking in supporting evidence. Maddow’s qualifier, “from any Republican president,” illustrates what I’m talking about here. What is in the mainstream for one of the major political parties isn’t even in the same river for the other side. In fact, it’s not even clear that we have only two currents of thought, since the Bernie Sanders campaign during the primaries exposed the rift between progressives and establishment Democrats. On the right, the Tea Party movement likewise shows the uncomfortable coalition in the Republican Party among fundamentalist Christians, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians.
All of this shows up in the arguments over the points of political contention these days. There isn’t a single mainstream when the debates over climate change, medicine, or taxation involve what acts like two separate languages spoken by people from different planets. What even is accepted as fact isn’t the same among the various sides. How can someone who accepts that human beings are responsible for the warming of the planet due to our consumption of fossil fuels be regarded as swimming in the same current as someone else who asserts that science is the servant of leftist political ideologues? A person who understands taxes to be the theft of private property isn’t using the same vocabulary that is used by those who see a social responsibility to use our collective resources for the benefit of all and particularly for those in need.
It’s a good time to give up the mythology of a mainstream. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his writings and debates, we treat conformity as a value in this country, and that brings together uncomfortable allies who are forced to pretend to agree with each other every four years. Our way of doing things seems to favor two parties, though the framers of the Constitution originally sought to avoid parties altogether — making me wonder how much of an originalist someone like Gorsuch actually is — but that strikes me as a favoring of black and white thinking. As Sanders once again reminds us, independence can fit within our system. He caucuses with the Democrats and ran in the party’s primaries, but as always identified as a democratic socialist.
We’ve had a long history of members of Congress migrating from one party to another or to declaring themselves to be independent when they lost in the primary but managed to win the general election. What they typically did was to vote with one of the major parties when it came to deciding control of the body, and that’s in effect what happens in parliamentary systems such as what is in place in England.
What we would gain is honesty with respect to our differences. The metaphors of a melting pot or a mingling of waters in the ocean only serve to create a kind of ideological purée. And shorthand thinking muddles the results. Calling someone a Republican may make life easier, but is the person in question a neo-con, a pro-life advocate, a libertarian, or a supporter of small business over large corporations? All of those exist within the party. Among Democrats, people who want more gun control are lumped together with those who are concerned about the environment, about guaranteeing healthcare for everyone, or about a woman’s right to choose. And the dilution of ideas imposed by these big tent approaches that envelop a world of ideas into a circus of distractions only succeed in giving us a virtual mainstream that is more article of faith than reality. Instead of the fallacy of hasty generalization, we better serve our interests by taking each person one at a time and taking each issue in the same manner.
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