Mourning the Mushy Middle

This week, the weather in DC was brisk but not cold, with scattered showers earlier in the week and a gray veil settling over the city on Tuesday night. I was here to work with our DC HQ, colleagues and friends, some conservative, some liberal, most in the politically comfy mushy middle, as my mother calls it. The mushy political middle where you may have some hard and fast political stances, but that on other things you’re willing to compromise, and work with those who agree they want to make things better, they just don’t agree on how to get there. Or at least discuss issues civilly.

I’ve visited DC entirely during the Obama years, except for my first visit freshman year in college, shivering in the snow while peering through the iron fence at the West Wing, feigning awe but really thinking about much at all, just that I was cold and that it seemed smaller than I’d thought it would be. I’d been politically active in high school in Canada, but when I decamped to the States for college, I decided that visitors didn’t get to protest or have opinions. No matter the taxes I paid on the wages from my three college jobs, or the opinions I had on Bush’s war in the Middle East, or the apprehension I felt when I got off the plane in Newark and passed soldiers carrying guns I’d never seen in Canada. I was a guest, and frankly I didn’t want to get deported. I kept my head down, because it wasn’t my war to decry.

Which is to say that I’ve only truly experienced the city itself with a barrier-breaking Democrat in the White House. And the D.C. dwellers I’ve met are like me: slightly cynical book nerds from both sides of the aisle who still believe that the art of politics is better than anarchy, that compromise is better than a stalemate.

And that even though I didn’t agree with how things got done (where the hell is single-payer health care? and why in the hell did Obama take so long to flat out say what he thought on Keystone?) I could put my trust in the system. On my power-walk into work from my hotel, clutching my too-thin-California-cost around my chest, I’d gawk at monuments and brownstones and historical markers with a smile. Projecting my own progressive interpretation of America’s founding narrative on to the planned city around me, I honestly believed in the march of progress, despite the national gridlock and percolating hate speech and obvious chasm between the haves and have nots. I took the state of the system for granted, and assumed we’d keep moving forward, or at least swing back to that mushy middle.

This trip took place in this limbo, stuck between a shockingly ugly election and a brave new world, but it didn’t feel as I’d expected. Pieces still moved, business still happened; the train still chugged along, picking up steam, heading towards what appears may be a false-horizon into a canyon. Polite cocktail chatter would inevitably turn to the current state of affairs, and talk would slow, drinks were drank. A sigh from both parties, a disbelief at what happened. A wish it was any other way.

Did I think it would feel different? Was I expecting different flags already, or perhaps that the Democratic resistance recruiting at Union Station? Or that the non-political workers would let us in on the joke and tell us it had all been a fever dream? That we'd take a mulligan on this one, and that man we elites had scoffed at, sneered at, wouldn’t ascend to the highest office in the land, pulling his extreme agenda and sense of revenge along with him?

What was I expecting?

I was catching up with a conservative friend over Facebook messenger while back at the hotel last night, because I just couldn’t shake my left coast chest cold. I apologized to him for cancelling on drinks at the last minute, and told him that I was looking forward to being reassured by an actually compassionate conservative. I reminded him of the late night debates we’d have in college over the size of government and social entitlements, and just how much freedom the States should have. What followed was a bittersweet back and forth mourning the mushy middle. with his final thought typed slow:

"Both sides are stuck in their own echo chamber. Reconciliation is the only way forward. We need a leader who can communicate that message.

Otherwise we are lost.”

And then I closed my laptop and went to sleep.