Among certain opinion-makers, it is fashionable to talk about how "bankrupt" the division between left and right is, pointing out that it is the "middle" of America that holds the key to the future. Most Americans even identify themselves as "moderates."
Others stress the polarization between "red" and "blue" America, saying that today there is little room for anything but red and blue, right and left, Republican and Democrat.
Who's right? The partisans of the middle, or the adherents to partisanship? Is there a center, or has the electoral divide swallowed it up?
The answer is "neither."
Today, the divide is not between right and left. It is between the head and the heart.
On the one side are the heads, living in the realm of policy and intellectual rigor. The heads look at outcomes, perform stakeholder analyses, and think hard about what the smartest public choice is on any of a host of issues. More important, they support the choices they make through appeals to the intellect. "Our ideas are smart," go their arguments. "On balance, these are the best policies because they result in the best outcomes."
But arrayed against the heads is the team of sentiment. The hearts look at each possibility and ask, "Does it feel right? Will I be morally comfortable taking this action?" The heart partisans think about what their gut tells them, what their role models might do, and what "message" they will be sending to children. And, they support their choices with arguments that tug at the heartstrings: "These choices are the right ones because they are inherently moral and bespeak the aspirations of America," they say.
In today's political constellation, the Democrats are the heads, and the Republicans are the hearts.
President Bush evokes an idealized America, the sort portrayed in popular country music, in which right is right and wrong is wrong, and those who oppose right are unwaveringly vanquished. This was the refrain in his White House press conference on Iraq a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, Senator Kerry seeks nuance in his positions, the sort of nuance found in so-called "alternative" music in which good is never all good and bad is never all bad - in the end, it depends on context. This is what he must explain when he says he voted in favor of the Iraq war, but that he intended that vote only to authorize going to war if the US could gain more international backing for such a move.
Where does this leave most of America? Behind, that's where. If you follow only your heart, you will do foolish things and potentially lead this country into disastrous situations - such as hurriedly mount a war while failing to plan for its success. If you follow only your head, you may make moves that seem questionable - such as voting in favor of something but claiming you did not support it.
The two parties, meanwhile, act as if their constituencies are single-mindedly heads or hearts. But people aren't. This, perhaps more than anything, is what keeps real people from caring what the parties say. People are looking for a little more heart from the Democrats as well as a little more head from the Republicans.
Many today speak of some sort of "revolution" just around the corner - one that comes from the center and dramatically realigns the parties, making them more relevant to people. I'm skeptical of this. Change will come about from following a much longer road than the proponents of revolution would have us believe, because change will involve individual people relating differently, to politics and to each other. When we speak in abstractions, in today's political environment, we speak in the language of partisanship. Our arguments appeal to only one constituency. But people need to see not only the relevance of politics, but also their own role in it. Until then, the head and the heart will argue.
Movements that bridge the present divide between head and heart will not come from think tanks in Washington, nor will they come from tearful speeches in the heartland. They'll come from people who get involved on a local level to tackle local issues, and see that there are ways to work together that produce results as well as satisfy a sentiment of belonging. This is because public life will allow us to escape the head vs. heart dichotomy only when our public work is practical, and forces us to confront that divide.
When we work together and wrestle with issues that matter to us as individuals, we will bring to bear our heads and our hearts. We will have to, because we are human, and we have both.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on public issues and ethics.