When Nicolae Ceasencu decided, on December 21st 1989, to make what turned out to be his last speech it is generally agreed he didn’t know what was coming next. The revolution which would depose him hours later was already in full swing, and he knew why – the people didn’t believe in him anymore, were no longer prepared to live in enforced poverty, and his security apparatus could no longer contain them.
But still the old man went out on the balcony and repeated the same old catchphrases everyone was so tired of – claiming that everyone was better off under him, and everyone who was against him was part of a foreign plot to destroy socialism and bring Romania under foreign domination. Despite the party packing the square with acolytes, the dictator heard boos for the first time ever, the crowd turned on him and he had to be rescued by helicopter before the revolutionary spirit he was appealing to take the opposite turn to the one he wanted.
Apparently Ceausescu was advised not to make this speech. So why did he do it?
He was trying to appeal to the middle – assuming that whatever people had put up with for the previous forty years was what the man in the street actually wanted, and he could cast his opponents as extremists who wanted to take all that away. Seeing his support ebb away within his own inner circle, he tried to cast them too as extreme by appealing to the silent majority, not understanding it was silent because it was no longer there.
There was considerable irony in the fact that this is what the leaders of democracies always try and do, not dictators who had destroyed all opposition. In fact this has been rejoiced over by democracy advocates – it is held that Ceausescu read the public so wrongly because he was a dictator, who never had to listen to the people, and no democratic leader would be able to do the same.
But the trouble is, they all do. Even in countries perpetually run by coalitions, in which finding the political middle is the only way to get anything done and then relating that to the public middle is the only way to stay in power, politicians get very out of touch.
They carry on assuming that what was true yesterday must be true for as long as it suits them, because that is the nature of the beast: believing they are always right and always good and always popular, even in the face of every indication to the contrary. You don’t get to be a political leader unless you can lie to yourself and not care, and be more adept at arguing the ridiculous than analysing what is going on in the real world.
So in any political system we have an inherent contradiction: the one thing every leader needs to do, identify and satisfy the middle, has to be done by the people least capable of doing it. Eventually those who fail in the attempt are hoist on their own petard, but their attempts can have long term consequences which threaten the lives of every citizen of everywhere, because the rest of us aren’t allowed to run away and hide behind ideology and big mouths.
Stuck In The Middle Without You
The US Republican Party is finding this out the hard way before our very eyes. Whatever your politics, it is sad to see this happening, because if the US gets its own public wrong, it can’t be equipped to do any good for anyone else’s.
The United States was built on the dream that everyone could make it big and be whatever they wanted in the new land of opportunity and freedom, where no king or Congress could tell anyone what to do. That dream has proved very pervasive, so it can’t be said to be without foundation, as the number of people still desperate to enter US to live and work testifies.
Ultimately, that dream is represented by the concept of Middle America. Due to the mass media and US cultural influence, we all know what this looks like: suburban house, husband with a good job, wife who doesn’t need one, obedient children who play sports and attend a Protestant church and everyone going to the mall and supporting whatever can be perceived as the American Way of Life.
In many countries, such a picture, even if accurate, is held to depict only one part of the population. It is understood that other social cultures exist, which don’t necessarily share the views, standards and aspirations of the middle class.
But in the US, Middle America is where every normal person is supposed to belong. If you don’t, you are presumed to want to. If you do, you have to pretend deviations from that do not exist, or are alright really, which is why narcotics are prevalent in all aspects of US society.
For a generation, Middle America has been Republican. This was not always so. There have been periods when the party of Lincoln was just for the wealthy or the loud, and the Democrats were where most people presumed themselves to be, the unwashed masses.
Conservatism was for the exclusive, the outsider and the showy, everything the man in the street, though more conservative by nature by having more need to conserve the less they had, was not comfortable with.
Eventually the Republicans became the home of everyone who had traditional values, who thought they were ordinary and thought that was better than being different. US politics, which for 100 years still effectively mirrored its Civil War divisions, fell into the pattern found in most democracies: the south and prairies which had once been solidly Democratic became Republican because they were fundamentally protectionist and localist in nature, whilst the Democrats became the brass necks and intellectuals in the cities and amongst the dispossessed and those on the sexual fringes of society in terms of gender ID.
Middle America remains traditional, conservative and full of itself. But does that still mean it is Republican?
The party would like to think so, because it still assumes that Democrats represent the extremes, and voting for them once is a temporary insanity. But it is also increasingly turning to “redistricting”, or changing electoral boundaries, to keep the advantages it has and break up those of the Democrats – which the Democrats have also done when feeling threatened, but that is the point.
Even though Republicans feel everyone is turning into rhinoceroses, they know it is happening. But they can’t shake the idea that what they represent is the middle, and that most people still see things the way they do, because they have to tell themselves that with increasing frequency to stand for election in the first place.
As ever, US politicians of all stripes think this is all about them, and this process has nothing to do with other countries. But we see it all the time in US involvement in the international arena.
The US automatically assumes everyone wants to come to America and likes all things American. Time and again it has imposed the fashionable US solution on countries, even when the reality of its actions is far removed from the lofty principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law which it believes everybody wants—international rule based order.
When people don’t like one single aspect of the US solution, this is because they have been corrupted by foreign extremists. Those who like the US must be the middle, the zone of safety and alliance.
But when they see on the ground this isn’t so, the only answer is not to try and find out what people want, and meet this aspiration at least halfway. It is to construct more enemies, and retreat even further into the mirage of Apple Pie and having the boys round on Superbowl Sunday, claiming the middle is where they want it to be because they can’t exist if it isn’t.
You don’t need to tell any developing country where this leads. They have had their share of fruitcake leaders who think armies from the Golden Age of their country will rise again and justify their every word. Their problems are only compounded when the country they all look up to is run, even if only in part, by people desperate to do the same and not equipped to do otherwise.
Not Wanting It When You Get It
Politicians will never be able to identify the middle as long as they believe the world is what they say it is, and that remains a job requirement. But when the political system itself recognises the problem, it has a habit of messing things up.
One of the oft-repeated complaints of “the middle” in any democracy is that the last thing they want is politicians. They want less rhetoric and more practical governance, driven by reality not ideology, and the rise of “stuff the lot of them party” populist movements in Europe in recent years is one manifestation of this.
In several countries, most notably Italy where no one would be seen dead talking to a politician, technocratic governments of no particular slant have been brought in to clear up the messes made by the politicians. These will give the people what they need because they need it, rather than because they are trying to buy votes, either from the public or their own party members.
But we know technocratic governments exist because you can identify them. If these knew what the middle was, they would be a political force in themselves, and would stay in power all the time through either election or nomination. They would be the norm, not the exception, and the whole political system would be variations on this norm.
Ultimately the middle always wants someone to blame. Midterm elections in the US and most democracies usually show that more people vote against whoever they don’t like rather than for the alternatives. Usually the party of government loses seats, but sometimes there is a big vote against an unpopular opposition party for an identifiable reason, and this can be demonstrated to have more of an impact on the results than positive votes.
The Republicans failed to generate an anti-Biden vote in the recent midterms, but there was a noticeable anti-Trump vote. This has led some to conclude that Middle America doesn’t like Trump but is still essentially Republican, so if the party can move on from him, it will still retain that segment of the electorate.
But to do that, it has to find someone to blame who is not part of Middle America. It also has to stop telling the American voters what they should be concerned about, and address what they really are concerned about.
They will never do that as long as they keep trying to appeal to the middle by telling it what it is, and that only by being that is it superior. When that effort fails, there will be nowhere to go but to do more preaching and more running away, and in countries where they can’t be voted out, this process will be seen even more starkly.
Here When You Won’t Look
So who is able to identify the elusive middle, and keep it onside by taking the practical steps they need? Anyone who doesn’t ask for people to vote for them, but looks at what happened only yesterday, is a shoe in candidate.
The definition of Middle America or middle anywhere, lies in what has just changed, not what has stayed the same. If people suddenly behave differently in response to the same thing, that change is the product of social shifts people often don’t realise have taken place, but are a rebirth of the accepted middle ground.
When what is called “Alternative Comedy” started invading TV screens and forcing out popular traditional comedy, people complained that this new, politically correct genre was being imposed upon them. But there were still comedy shows, which got audiences big enough to make them still worth producing.
Furthermore, many comedy venues argued the contrary: that they couldn’t get people through the door for traditional comedy because the public, not the censors, found much of it offensive. Alternative Comedy was a different sort of offensive to many, but more of the paying audience wanted it, a hard fact which wouldn’t go away.
So in this area, as in any other, the change rather the continuance represented the middle. Those who comment may still think the US Democratic Party extreme, arrogant or out of touch compared to the ideal of Middle America. But if they win seats they previously lost, the middle has moved, and appealing to it will have the opposite effect to the one intended.
It is the extremes, not the middle, which stay the same. Imre Nagy found that out when he tried to modernise Marxism. Only the least ideological and most radical, not to mention the most humble, cam find the middle and stay in it.
Come back to me six months from now and tell me whether the US activity in your country in non-ideological, radical and humble, and I will tell you the Republicans regaining the House is the reason why you don’t matter.
But often, more the rule than the exception, those who stand in the middle of the road get run over!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.