Searching for the Definition of 'Mainstream'

Political candidates hoping to get elected or judicial nominees vying for the federal bench would do well to be in the "mainstream" these days, though the media may try to distance themselves from the designation.

That's because the "mainstream media" is a club increasingly loathed by the both the political right and left while "mainstream America" is regarded as the group that engenders today's values.

But the determination of what is mainstream and where it is located has been so overplayed or misstated lately that several political experts agree the term "mainstream" has become the latest casualty of political language that was once sharp and appropriate but is now devoid of clear meaning for anyone.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is the meaning of 'mainstream' these days," Chuck Muth, president of the Washington, D.C, think tank Citizen Outreach, said.

"I think years ago, ['in the mainstream'] may have been a more substantive comment, but I think it's evolved into a more trite comment today," Republican pollster Dave Winston said, adding that the mainstream is as muddy as it is popular.

Entering the phrase "in the mainstream" into a Google Web search yields an estimated 811,000 results in the last three months, with 818 hits appearing in news reports during that time.

"If you could get 10 people together to try and agree on the definition of mainstream, I bet you would have considerable trouble doing it," Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said.

On Capitol Hill, where it is important to be considered in the mainstream, most experts who spoke to described it loosely — as being "moderate" or having views that appeal to both Republican and Democratic sensibilities. As a result, those in the mainstream are able to bring about bipartisan support on a given issue.

Mainstream is also used to describe a lawmakers' appeal to a wide swath of voters. Mainstream America is the political equivalent of the socially and economically attractive "Main Street U.S.A."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said the mainstream is a desirable place because it represents commonality or normalcy.

"Usually people are attracted to 'mainstream.' Virtually everyone wants to think they are within the mainstream," Sabato said.

"It's a way to try and center yourself in hopes that it will give you some appeal," Bruce Gronbeck, professor of communications at the University of Iowa, said.

Gronbeck credits former President Clinton (search) with making the mainstream popular political real estate in the 1990s.

"Bill Clinton: Here you had a social liberal and [an] economic conservative," Gronbeck said. "He didn't fit the political definitions and it drove both parties crazy. We began there to talk about the mainstream."

Since the Clinton era, both parties are trying to claim the political mainstream for partisan advantage. Recently, Democrats accused President Bush's (search) nominees for federal judgeships of being outside the mainstream, which meant painting those at the center of the recent filibuster debate as too extreme in their beliefs to be effective on the bench.

The day the Senate voted to confirm Justice Janice Rogers Brown (search) to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y., called Brown "so far out of the mainstream that she makes [conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia look like a liberal."

Sen. Barack Obama (search), D-Ill., also attempted to toss Brown out of the mainstream, saying he hoped the California Supreme Court judge wasn't getting "a pass" because she is a black woman.

"I hope we've arrived at a point in our country's history where black folks can be criticized when they hold views that are out of the mainstream," Obama said.

Despite the outcry against the judicial nominees, in a deal arranged by the "Gang of 14," made up mostly of moderate senators from both sides of the aisle, Brown, Justices Priscilla Owen and William Pryor were all deemed mainstream enough and were confirmed by the Senate for the federal bench. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., considered one of the more conservative members of the chamber, threw the Democrats' words back at them, hailing the confirmation of Brown as a victory for the mainstream.

"If some in the minority were as insightful as they claim to be about 'mainstream America' they would not be in the minority. The fact is, many of these three nominees' fiercest critics neither understand nor agree with mainstream America on many issues," Coburn said in a release.

"Mainstream Americans are sick and tired of judicial activism, which is why President Bush will continue to nominate diverse judges who will interpret the law, not invent new laws and precedents from the bench," he added.

Declaring ownership of the term mainstream will ultimately lead most voters to translate it in a way favorable to the owner, Winston said: "Obviously I'm right, they're wrong and therefore they aren't in the mainstream."

But the dilution of the expression through overuse like other "in vogue" terms will only lessen the meaning with every usage, Madonna said.

"I tend to use 'moderate' rather than mainstream. ... To me, it has some meaning," Madonna said. "It may be someone who is pro-choice on abortion, but against partial birth abortion."

Unlike the political middle, being mainstream is an unpopular place when applied to the media. Originally coined by conservatives as MSM, the mainstream media is maligned by both ends of the political spectrum as biased, lazy and agenda-driven. The reference invariably includes major newspapers and broadcast media.

"The media has become an object of derision," Sabato said. "MSM has become an acronym that is widely recognized. It would be difficult to change."

With such a handy target, lawmakers in both parties have taken to kicking the mainstream media at frequent intervals.

In a May interview with the Washington Post, Eric Ueland, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., spoke of the senator's efforts to try to do the right thing in the face of a "ferocious mainstream media onslaught."

On Rep. John Conyers' Web log, the Michigan Democrat said it was about time the "MSM finally is getting it" by focusing on the recently leaked British cabinet memos that suggest President's Bush had his mind set on war as early as the summer of 2002.