The “Exhausted Middle”

Graph showing plurality of Americans fall in a "politically disengaged" middle

Apparently, just as Chuck Schumer was getting Krysten Sinema on board with the Inflation Reduction Act (which, as a reminder, will be largest investment the US has ever made in combating climate change and would DRASTICALLY reduce our carbon emissions), St. Bernard of the Snows decided it was the PERFECT time to make cranky speech on the Senate floor about how the IRA doesn’t do enough because it doesn’t include every last thing on his wish list, intimating that he might not vote for it.

And it got me thinking about the “exhausted middle” concept.

The graphic that heads this post references a study titled Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, published in 2018 by a group called More In Common. Although there are some methodological problems with the study, as detailed in this Vox article, that mean that the conclusions the study’s authors draw about the impact of “tribe” (their word) membership versus partisanship on specific voting behavior may not be entirely accurate, the larger point – that most people fall somewhere between the extremes of “Progressive Activist” and “Devoted Conservative” – rings true.

To quote the study (pg. 11):

The Exhausted Majority contains distinct groups of people with varying degrees of political understanding and activism. But they share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political
viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.

I think those points about varying degrees of activism and lack of voice are both pretty important.

According to the report (pg. 12), the five non-extremes categories, who represent fully 86% of people surveyed, are fairly to very unlikely to have done anything political other than vote in the prior year (and the fact that Passive Liberals are the lowest voting category aside from the folks who are Disengaged explains a lot of electoral outcomes).

Unlike all us nerds who know the names of obscure elected officials in places we’ve never lived and can discuss the finer points of how IRA differs from Build Back Better without even having to hit the Goog and follow every tiny shift in the ratings on Cook Political Report like the score of the goddamn Super Bowl, most folks just aren’t paying that much attention.

Most people, to quote someone I follow on Twitter who protects her tweets, want “vanilla politics,” or, as the Hidden Tribes report details, leaders who are willing to listen to others and compromise.

Unfortunately, “vanilla politics,” listening, and compromise don’t lead to social media clout.

As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic (and I do urge you to take a minute to read the whole thing), changes to social media have completely upended the way we all relate to each other, leaving us all “putting on performances” and “managing [our] personal brand,” so that it “impress[es] others” rather than attempting to make any type of personal, authentic connection.

What “changes to social media”?

Facebook’s “Like” button and Twitter’s “Retweet” function, both of which were launched in 2009. As author Jonathan Haidt goes on to describe:

Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.

In other words, in order to get more eyeballs to spend more time on the site so they could sell more ads for more money, Facebook started intentionally promoting the most divisive content its algorithm could find, while on Twitter,

Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

Twitter mobs started to descend, on “newly tweaked platforms [that] were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves.”

As I’ve written before, I am certainly NOT arguing that calling on “Twitter, do your thing” about a cop who’s harassing and threatening (and even injuring or killing) someone just because of the color of his skin is a bad thing. Just so we’re clear, using the power of social media to hold institutions and authorities, particularly those who have the state’s blessing to hold the monopoly on the legal use of violence, to account is a GOOD thing.

But should a poorly-written joke that sounded racist while attempting to make fun of racism blow up a random individual’s life? Probably not.

Again quoting Haidt:

Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax the rich dress at the annual Met Gala…? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine?

Spoiler alert: Our democracy is not, in fact, healthier.

I myself am a relatively experienced Dem activist who finds herself trending a bit more towards the “Traditional Liberal” column and away from the “Progressive Activist” one as I get older, and I follow a lot of folks on Twitter who are proud to call themselves “establishment Dems.” And they write a lot about acting (including voting) from a place of HARM REDUCTION rather than PURITY.

Or, as another person I follow on Twitter who also protects his tweets put it recently:

Half the liberal-left discourse on this platform is daily dedicated to “your stance isn’t alienating enough to normal people – here, I have an even more terrible way of phrasing things to alienate even more people & you’re a sell-out if you don’t parrot it.”

So back to ole St. Bernard up there: Would you rather be right or be effective? Or, to put it another way: Half a cupcake is better than no cupcake at all.

And again, let’s be clear: the polarization we’re experiencing is asymmetric. Going back to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With (On?) America, only ONE party is determined to ensure that government doesn’t work, by whatever means necessary, in order to “prove” their nihilistic ideology, and it’s not the Democrats.

But ultimately, the Hidden Tribes report urges us to seek ways to “create empathy and put people’s opinions and beliefs into a more human context.” (pg. 15) Because right now, those folks are tuning us, the nerds who live and breathe politics, out. And it’s not that they’re dumb or don’t care or are all closet Trumpers. Indeed:

Pundits sometimes characterize people who recognize complexity and see two sides of an issue as either indecisive or overly intellectual. Our conversations with everyday Americans in the Exhausted Majority suggest that this is a false characterization. Many in these segments do not engage deeply with these issues, but they recognize their complexity. Because their sense of personal identity is less attached to a group that has an unambiguous view on these issues, they tend to approach those issues with more flexibility and without the lens of tribalism. (pg. 111)

Approaching complex issues with flexibility and without the lens of tribalism? That sounds like a good place to start to me.

Image source for the header graphic.

Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.

One response to “The “Exhausted Middle”

  1. “Devoted Conservatives” should be called “Dangerous Right-wing Radicals” or even “White Supremacist Theocratic Radicals” … they are anything but conservative. As for Traditional Conservatives, I think this chart overstates how many of these people actually exist. They are actually Libertarians.

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