on the fence

To be”on the fence” is to be hesitant about taking a political stance. Someone who is “on the fence” resists joining one side or the other of an argument, especially when taking a side could be politically risky.

On a literal level, of course, fences define the boundaries between properties. Sitting astride of a fence indicates that you have one foot in each of two properties. Metaphorically, sitting on the fence means that you have one foot in each of two opposing positions.

“Fence sitting” tends to be used as an insult, but the phrase can also be flipped on its head. A more positive term for a fence sitter is a moderate – and the world is full of praise for moderates. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Akst looked at some recent definitions of the moderate:

A true moderate…rather than seeking “safe spaces,” welcomes opposing views. Moderates know that nobody has a monopoly on the truth and are willing to appear inconsistent in order to follow the facts, moving (deliberately) first to one side and then the other like human ballast in the interests of keeping the ship of state on an even keel.

Moderates are increasingly rare in the US today. Americans are more and more divided on political, economic, and social issues. The Pew Center calls political polarization a “defining feature of American politics today” and notes that there is a widening gap between conservatives and liberals on issues like gender equality, the environment, and a host of other issues. 

The gap between Democrats and Republicans has widened since the onset of COVID-19, the Pew Center has found. In a survey carried out in late June, the group found that 61 percent of Republicans believed that the US had “turned a corner” when it came to dealing with the coronavirus. In contrast, just 23 percent of Democrats said the same; 76 percent of Democrats surveyed agreed with the statement that “the worst is still to come” in terms of the coronavirus.

With the country increasingly polarized, some marketing experts say nobody can afford to sit on the fence any longer. Even corporations must now take a stand, some say, aligning themselves with one political position or another. A panel hosted by the Business Marketing Association at the Wall Street Journal found that

“In the Trump era, the longtime practice of sitting on the fence is over for brands who must not only know their political values, but openly share them. But that’s not to say brands must take strong stances on every issue. Instead, they should speak in broader terms about issues tied to their values and avoid calling out any specific political figures or voter blocks.”

For what it’s worth, Britain’s national health service has reported that there may be health benefits to political extremism. The NHS summarized what it called a “tongue in cheek” study published in the Mail Online which found that people who identify with extreme political positions tend to get more exercise than self-described moderates. In other words, the NHS wrote, “People who sit on the fence, it seems, spend too much time sitting on the couch as well. “