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Columnist: Balance lost in modern politics

“Balance, that’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds.” — Edward Abbey (1927-1989), author and essayist.

Balance is necessary to life — to nature and to our physical well-being; it is important to our household finances and in our personal/professional lives; it is gained through diversity programs in schools and universities; and, importantly for this essay, it should be seen in our political system.

We balance our checkbooks; we measure income against expenses; we consider time spent on this project that cannot be spent on that; we ask ourselves, should we visit these grandchildren, or those? Should we exercise today, or should we sleep another hour? Every day we make hundreds of decisions, balancing outcomes.

Balance is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it suggests an even distribution, and as a verb, it means assessing opportunities equally.

As children, we sought balance by playing our mothers against our fathers. At one point we are told to think with our heads, not our hearts; then we are told we are heartless, we should be more considerate.

We balance work against pleasure, and family versus friends. As Mark Udall once said, “The balance between freedom and security is a delicate one” — for the sake of national safety, compromise needs be found.

Balance means different things to different people, and we don’t always get the combination right. A policeman must balance the need for law enforcement against the rights of those she is charged to protect.

Tolerance for Muslims must be weighed against the dangerous intolerance of Islamic extremists. In literature, there is a balance between life and art.

P.G. Wodehouse balanced the brainy servant Jeeves against the mentally-challenged master Bertie Wooster. Dickens was aware of the good in society, but wrote about the evil beneath. It is a quest for an intangible that goes on throughout our lives.

It may take years to determine whether we had decided correctly. Other times, we know immediately. As we get older, balance means simply not falling.

Cultural habits and prejudices are hard to change; so balance may be forced upon us. In the school year 1970-71, only 9 percent of bachelor degrees were conferred on women. Today women represent more than 50 percent of undergraduate students, the result of a successful program to bring gender balance to higher education.

Affirmative action has improved racial imbalances, but the same cannot be said about political philosophies among university students, administrators and teachers. Here we have become unbalanced.

To have diversity in race, sex and religion, yet an imbalance in ideas cannot have been the original intent of affirmative action. The rise in political correctness — a fear of offending and an unwillingness to confront opposing ideas — has meant that universities have become more tribal than cosmopolitan. They provide “safe places” for those uncomfortable with ideas that challenge conventional thinking.

Condemnation against “hateful” speech should be balanced against the right of free expression. The consequence of an imbalance in thought has been less independent students, and graduates who leave college with a sense of hubristic entitlement.

Liberal ideologies, originating in colleges and universities — incubators of future leaders — have drifted into society at large, as those who were students 20 and 30 years ago are now running government, banks, endowments and big businesses. They have become the arrogant “elite” who may seem nontraditional in outward appearance, but who are conventional and unbalanced in thought.

The Founders were concerned about balance in government, which is why they endowed the three branches with different, but equal powers. However, over the years the executive branch has assumed ever greater powers, threatening to undo that balance.

While the presidency itself has been in balance — in the 71 years since the end of World War II, Republicans have held the office 36 years and Democrats 35 — the parties have skewed toward extremism, with Democrats far to the left and Republicans to the right.

The arc of the pendulum keeps widening. The result has been a decline in party affiliation, and a concomitant increase in independents.

A 2015 Pew research poll showed 39 percent of the electorate is independent, 32 percent Democrat and 23 percent Republican. In 1985, comparable numbers were 29 percent, 34 percent and 32 percent.

With political polarization has come vindictiveness. In Congress, trade-offs are things of the past.

Recall President Obama’s response to Sen. John McCain regarding his stimulus package in 2009: “I won. Deal with it.”

Well the stimulus, as Mr. Obama admitted a couple of years later, “did not stimulate.” Wouldn’t everyone have been better off if concessions had been sought?

Leaders should want everyone to have “skin in the game.” When they have none, they have little reason to make policy work.

Would debate still rage if a single Republican had voted for the Affordable Care Act? Debate and bargaining used to be hallmarks of the Senate. Now public and political lives are under constant surveillance.

Lustitia, the Roman Goddess of justice, is the allegorical personification of the moral force of balance in our judicial system. She is pictured blind-folded, holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other.

The sword is to defend justice. The scale contains evidence of the case, to be judged solely on their merits.

Lustitia is blind as to who represents which side. Today, it appears the blindfold has been lifted.

Consider the cases of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus: both careless in the handling of sensitive information, yet only one was punished.

The media has played a role in upsetting the balance. The reason is in part commercial. Bad news sells better than good. Conflict sells better than accord.

Why report on a Congressional bill that has joint support, when one can headline the antics of dissension? Politicians claim common interests are greater than differences, yet words rarely translate into actions.

The ubiquitous nature of social media has meant that party leaders do not want to be seen canoodling with the opposition. The Senate dining room, for example, is no longer a place where congressional leaders, representing differing political philosophies, mingle — someone might snap a “selfie!”

I agree with Barry Goldwater’s admonition that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, but we have lost political balance. That unhappy fact has many fathers: politicians who see compartmentalization as a means to electoral success; the rise of a supercilious establishment; a media that thrives on dissension, not unity; and a ubiquitous social media that leaves little space for those of opposing opinions to find common ground.

The loss of this balance has divided the country, not so much between the rich and the poor — those differences have always existed — but between those who are privileged to be part of a cultural elite, a condescending band of brothers and sisters who runs our nation: politically correct politicians, cronies in banking and business, educators, Hollywood and media types, and the rest of us.

The consequence is an uncomfortable and unsustainable imbalance.

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By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He may be reached at sydwilliams1@aol.com.