I have always loved this particular verse by W B Yeats. It captures a certain fear, one that seems particularly appropriate today.
In the United States, President Trump's proposed boarder wall has brought the US Government to a standstill. It will be no secret that I am not a Trump supporter. However, President Trump made the wall a centre piece of his campaign and has consistently argued for it. The wall may not make sense, but in Australian terms he has a mandate to seek to build it.
If you now look at the Democrat side, you find a win at all costs mentality. I have now listened to Democrat Nancy Pelosi She strikes me as rigid and dogmatic as the President, if on the other side, also determined to win at all costs. The wall has become a symbolic issue. The economic costs of the shutdown already exceed the costs of the wall. Logic would dictate a concession that allows some construction, that allows political focus on other more important issues. But, no, symbolism dominates, the desire to win dominates.
Something similar is happening in Australia at the moment if on a much smaller scale over fish kills on the Lower Darling River. The similarity lies in the way that symbolism and sharp political divides have polarised the debate, It is hard to adopt a central position, to find out the facts, although information does emerge in the midst of the shouting and political posturing.
I do recognise that the concept of "the centre" in society or politics is actually a slippery one, especially in dealing with a single issue.
The standard English definition of centre - the point that is equally distant from every point on the circumference of a circle or sphere or, alternatively, the point from which an activity or process is directed, or on which it is focused - doesn't quite capture the social or political definition.
In conventional terms. the idea of the political or social centre is presented as a straight line from left to right, with the centre just the bit in the middles. This does not capture the way in which ideas and beliefs overlap and can vary from person to person, from value to value, from issue to issue, although it can be useful when you have diametrically opposed views, when the spot in the statistical middle is largely vacated as people crowd to the left and right.
I think the idea of using a circle, or a series of circles moving out from a central point, to plot attitudes and beliefs is better because it allows easier tracking and analysis across multiple issues. I recognise that definitional issues remain. For example, do you place the centre at the point where the dots are greatest or do you use another conventional measure and then plot views against that or a combination of the two? However, I think that it is a useful technique.
Mapping the Australian blogosphere) on attempt to measure linkages and clustering between political blogs. I haven't seen it done since and indeed the blogging world has changed enormously since, but the clustering remains interesting.
Returning to my main theme, I think that if you mapped the United States I think that you would find two things. If we define the centre in terms of majority views, we would find a move to the left. If we define the centre in terms of the area of overlap of views, we would find that it has sharply narrowed with two quite distinct segments coming from that point, both of whom talk past each other.
I think something similar has happened in the UK where Brexit has highlighted divisions to the point that the very survival of the UK as a political entity is under some question. Brexit is an example of a wicked problem made more acute by the earlier failure to address what might be done if the there was a yes vote and then weaknesses in the consultation process. As in the US, divisions reflect geography and history as well as the usual economic and class divides. In both countries, ideology has become more important, hardening left/right divides.
The problem with the apparent collapse of the centre lies in the way that it reduces scope for common working, adds to the zero sum must win mentality even where such victories can only be short term pyrrhic gains. Despite the divides, there are political leaders in both the US and UK who still instinctively move to the centre in seeking common ground even at political cost to themselves.
I think that the Australian position is better, although some of the same trends are apparent here. I say this for several reasons.
I think the major parties still look, or are at least forced to look, for centre ground. Here I think that the cross-bench has played an interesting and quite productive role. I have also found, and this is just a personal comment, that even with the ideological warriors it is still possible to have a conversation on facts and issues despite their normal entrenched positions. I am not sure that this would be possible in the US.
Still, I do worry whether the Australian centre can hold in the face of the forces of disunion.