The disappearance of the middle ground

By Anupam Manur (@anupammanur)

The end result of an acrid political climate, as witnessed in the US and India, could be one of highly populated extremes and a disappearing middle-ground.

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Dear America,

Allow me the liberty to predict what will happen over the next few years. This is not another fear-mongering doomsday scenario painting exercise about the potential consequences of a Trump Presidency. I’ll leave that to the experts; experts, who have gotten all their predictions wrong until now. You are in a lot of trouble, not because of what Trump will do or not do, but because of the way you will react to his every move.

If you thought the election campaign trail saw the heights of polarisation, bigotry and racism in your society, then, you have another thing coming. Things are only going to get more divisive from now on. There will be an exponential increase in nationalistic fervour. Public discourse will worsen over the next few years to the point that sensible people will be forced to retire out of sheer frustration and saturation. This is the adverse selection problem in public discourse. If there is a higher proportion of lemons in the market, and the average consumer cannot differentiate between the lemon and the peach, the peaches get crowded out.

Every move by your next President will receive disproportionate attention and reactions. Yes, in a democracy, the citizens have to provide the vigil, but this will take an extreme turn, and perhaps a turn for the worse. The vigil will turn into an obsession, which will saturate public attention. The supporters and detractors will fight out every move, not based on the merits or demerits of the move, but based on the position they took on the day of the election. Supporters will cheer every move and defend it with all their might, irrespective of whether there exists any merits to it. Even terrible moves that might actually induce harm in these stakeholders will find staunch supporters. The supporters might even be willing to endure the negative effects in order to defend their position.

Detractors, on the other hand, will assume that it is their moral obligation to oppose everything. Let us assume that Trump does something reasonable in his tenure, which can be welfare enhancing to Americans, like perhaps fixing the fragile Obamacare. Regardless, the detractors will vilify him, make highly polemical arguments, and go to great lengths to find faults, instead of nuanced debates on how it can be improved. Reasonability and sensibility will disappear from public discourse and so will balanced objectivity. The residue will be a highly charged, hyper-partisan platform for dogmatic exchanges. To make things worse, your political representatives will also be highly divided and it would be reasonable to expect the Congress and the Senate to be in a continuous gridlock for the next few years. Sure, some legislations may get passed, but most of it will have to endure an extremely rough path.

This black hole of negativity will suck in everything in its sight. Previously sane commentators will start taking positions and will stick to it, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Very few will be exempt from this. The middle ground will rapidly vanish and the extremes will start getting populated. There is perhaps some merit in apathy and indecisiveness among citizens, but the time for that has gone. Everyone has a strong opinion and of course, it is the right opinion. The media houses will not be spared either from the hyper-partisan discourse. An independent and impartial media will be left wanting.

I speak from experience. This is what has happened to public discourse in India since the elections in 2014. I am not trying to draw any parallels between our two elected representatives nor our political parties or governments. There is just an overwhelming similarity in the acrid political climate of our countries and the end result could be one of highly populated extremes and a disappearing middle-ground.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution

 

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