June 01, 2013

The Back Page

Mark Ryan

The power of the middle is fascinating. In our ever more polarized political world, the constant drum-beat of accusations from the right and left has become noise, each side cancelling out the other. We become deaf to the continuous name-calling, hyperbole, and finger-pointing from the poles. In the process, the quiet minority occupying the middle frequently ends up with the power.

Just look at the Supreme Court. Roberts is the Chief. Scalia is the noisiest. But most would agree that it is Kennedy who frequently rules the roost. Justice Kennedy just all but made gay marriage a constitutionally protected right. Who would have guessed, other than Justice Scalia (who did) that outcome even a few years ago? And how many Supreme Court briefs have been written specifically to speak to Justice Kennedy? We see a similar dynamic in politics. The two moderate Republican Senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, wielded great power during the health care overhaul debates because they showed a willingness to work with the opposition. While the firebrands of both parties quickly became entrenched, and had little to say to one another, Senators Snowe and Collins were working deals. We look to the middle, not the extremes, to forge alliances, and Maine has benefitted from its senators’ moderate positions.

What is to be learned from this aside from the obvious lesson that extreme positions often fail to garner results? Let us look at the hot topics in environmental policy: CO2 regulation, mountain-top mining, Pebble Mine, Endangered Species Act de-listings, off-shore oil and gas development, wetlands regulation and anything agriculture-related, to name just a few. Those debates are old and seemingly insoluble. The left wants the mining stopped, the species saved, and the wetlands protected. The right wants the government to get out of the way to allow largely unfettered commerce and development. Most would agree, however, that neither position, left unchecked by the other side, would yield the best results. We need to let businesses do their thing, but we cannot let our environment be destroyed in the process. As I have written in the past, one need only look to China to see how well that model has worked.

So in these polarized times, the smart ones are the Kennedys and Snowes of the world. Positioning oneself in between two equally sized, non-cooperative forces creates a beneficial dynamic for the moderate. We tend to deride the opposition, but in doing so we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to forge deals that benefit our own side. We lose, as a society, when the polar ends of the debate refuse to acknowledge the rights or ideas of the other, and we end up ceding immense power to the few in the middle who are willing to listen, and to cut deals.

Mark Ryan

Mark Ryan is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment and Assistant Regional Counsel in the EPA Region 10 Boise Office. The views expressed here are Mr. Ryan's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EPA. He may be reachd at ryan.mark@epa.gov.