The Middle Way can offer some distinctive answers to the questions both of how our political system should be organised and of the best policies for governments to follow. This implies that there is a possible Middle Way perspective on any political issue.
Middle way philosophy is distinctive because it tries to address conditions most effectively and avoid dogmatic beliefs based on metaphysical assumptions. Politics is affected by dogmatic metaphysical beliefs that prevent us from responding to experience just like any other area of life: for example, those of Marxism, Thatcherite Conservatism, Libertarianism, Nationalism or Anarchism. Wherever political beliefs involve absolutisation rather than values and evidence in experience, we need to steer away from the absolutisation and towards what is accessible in experience. Middle Way politics is thus thoroughly pragmatic – but pragmatic in a long-term fashion rather than a narrowly self-interested one.
The Middle Way in our political system
It is impossible to prescribe only one political system for all circumstances, because the environmental, social, economic, and psychological circumstances in which a political system has to operate can be very varied. In general, though, a political system is more effective if it supports integration of government: that is, for the desires of different parts of government, and of all the people served by the government, and of external forces, to work together. This in turn depends on a great many complex relationships, not only between social groups and political groups, but within the psyches of all those involved. It is not realistic to expect all of these relationships to ever be perfectly integrated, but they can be more so or less so.
Democracy, namely the election of a government by the people, is one generally effective way of ensuring a degree of integration between the people and their government. In suitably stable circumstances it is usually the best available political system for that reason. However, its effectiveness can be greatly limited by the ignorance of the people (as Plato pointed out) – where people rely on prejudices inflamed by rhetoric rather than a balanced consideration of experience to inform their judgement. Its effectiveness can also be limited by divisions within government, or by a big division between the state concerned and forces external to it. The pride and corruption of tyrants is certainly one of the things we have to fear in a political system, but not the only one. The instability of anarchy or of the environment, the effects of ignorant populism, or major conflicts within government offer other substantial problems. Any successful system has to strike a balance in addressing all these complex conditions, not merely leaning over backwards to deal with one of them whilst losing sight of the others.
The Middle Way in government policy
Within the context of a reasonably stable Western democracy (such as most of Europe and the US), though, the political questions that confront ordinary people are more about justified policies: which party to vote for and what policies to protest about. Any one given political ideology is unlikely to have the monopoly on policies that address conditions, because ideologies tend to arise in particular groups in society and give priority to addressing the conditions that are important to them whilst ignoring the others. For example, the heavy public welfare spending recommended by traditional socialist ideology addresses the issue of poverty and its effects, but often does not adequately address the economic conditions required to sustain that spending. Neo-conservative ideology, on the other hand, tends to narrowly focus on individual freedom and/or free market conditions without adequately addressing the need for reasonably equal and stable social conditions that give value to freedom and prosperity in the first place.
Often, then, Middle Way politics ends up being compromise politics, and has something in common with the conclusions reached by pragmatic politicians who have had the courage to move beyond the ideologies they may have started with: Tony Blair springs to mind as an example here, flawed though he is in many respects. Blair moved the British Labour party towards more fully addressing key economic conditions so as to help the poorer members of society in a more sustainable fashion: perhaps to some extent he lost the socialist compassion he started with in this process, but he also made his party face up to conditions and generated a long period of relative political success.
However, Middle Way politics is not always compromise politics. If large numbers of people are neglecting a particular condition, that condition will not be addressed better through compromise, but rather through more radical action to draw attention to it. The failure of compromise politics to address Global Warming adequately is a good illustration of this. Compromise politics can also leave elephants wandering around the room: the vast resource use, unsustainability, emissions and frequent cruelty of our completely unnecessary consumption of animal products are major elephants in the room of Western democracies at present. No major political party is addressing this issue, because parties only reflect the thinking of the social groups that support them. Even if a new party did arise offering to address this condition, there are many factors involved in any decision to vote from them apart from theoretical agreement with their policies.
Middle Way politics
Broadly, then, Middle Way politics (in a democracy) seems to tend towards three kinds of political positions:
1. Opposition towards political positions that are clearly ideological and neglect important conditions
2. Support for the best available pragmatic compromise politics
3. The raising of new radical issues involving conditions that are not being addressed in mainstream politics
Robert M Ellis 2011