Against Moderate Politics

Political moderation should not be confused with tolerance, pragmatism, willingness to compromise, resistance to political tribalism, or open-mindedness. These are distinct concepts. Moderate politics seek a middle ground between contending viewpoints. Moderation is necessarily bound by time and place: it seeks to average over the political alternatives on offer in a particular society at a particular time. As an averaging philosophy, moderation often fails either to contain the truth or to bend our institutions toward justice. The historical record of moderation in the U.S. Congress has little to recommend it to us today.

Even experts (say, political philosophers) rarely agree on political truths beyond the basics of the liberal-democratic consensus. It’s so hard to agree because our political conclusions flow from different foundational intuitions. As Bayesians might put it, the truth about politics has a multimodal probability distribution. Those political views that are least plausible are precisely those that paper over our differences.

For instance, if you believe that all sane, adult persons enjoy literally the same rights, the radical philosophy of libertarianism plausibly follows. By contrast, if you believe that states enjoy emergent rights that individual human beings do not, then the “ordinary view of politics”—that the purpose of government is to encourage good things and discourage bad things—is more likely true. What is implausible is some intermediate view—indeed, it is difficult even to articulate what such a view might be.

Political moderation rarely advances justice. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” aimed squarely at the white “moderates” of the Jim Crow South who deplored both segregation and civil disobedience campaigns against segregation. King defended nonviolent direct action as the necessary prerequisite to negotiation. Merely calling for both sides to “negotiate” makes no sense when the side of justice is weak and the side of injustice is strong. That doesn’t mean we need to resist every injustice by any means fair or foul—the remedy can be worse than the disease—but it does mean that the yen for “a middle way” can lead us badly astray.

One might say something similar about slavery politics in the antebellum United States. For decades moderate Northerners vehemently criticized free-soilers and abolitionists for wanting to put slavery on the congressional agenda, even if it imperiled the union. In the end, the centrist compromise of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the very thing that radicalized North and South and led to the Civil War.

During the New Deal, “moderation” meant making compromises with the segregation South: handing over the Housing and Home Finance Agency to segregationists, empowering racist unions and cartelizing Southern industry through the National Industrial Recovery Act (thereby softening the wage competition that had previously begun to desegregate Southern manufacturing), displacing black sharecroppers and managing tenants through the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and burying anti-lynching legislation.

Nor were the moderate, bipartisan, insider politics of the 1950s to 1970s as productive as Darrell West suggests. Precisely where bipartisan consensus reigned longest—foreign policy—federal decisionmaking ended up being the most disastrous. Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War were bipartisan. In domestic policy, too, moderate Congresses were dominated by logrolling, pork-barreling, iron triangles, and incumbency reelection advantages unparalleled in the western world. The peak of moderate bipartisanship was also the peak of special-interest power. Without ideology to act as a constraint, legislative politics naturally devolves into mere exchange.

The last moderate Republican President, George H.W. Bush, so often lionized today, was also a great regulator. Under his watch the regulatory restraint under Reagan disappeared. The costly Americans with Disabilities Act led to a dramatic reduction in the employment of disabled people, a problem our economy still grapples with today.

The last moderate Democrat, Bill Clinton, did manage to balance the budget and sign welfare reform with Republican support. Those might be considered victories for bipartisanship, but the first is more likely a result of growing Republican conservatism and divided government, which prevented agreement on what to spend on. And against these we must put the 1994 Crime Bill. One thing moderates of both parties always seem to agree on is the need for more drug enforcement, asset forfeiture, and prison building.

Growing ideological polarization in Congress is in some ways a good thing. Growing conservatism in the Republican caucus led to the earmark moratorium and the incapacitation of the Export-Import Bank. (There is a contrarian case for earmarks as a way of getting things done in the face of gridlock, but a better approach is institutional reform, discussed below.) If agricultural subsidies are ever to be curtailed, it will probably only happen with a highly conservative Republican majority.

At the state level, the new breed of Republican elected since 2010 has done much more to deregulate and liberalize than the old “compassionate conservatives” of the Bush years. In my state, New Hampshire, it is actually the conservative Republicans, not the old-line moderates, who are most interested in criminal justice reform, civil liberties, and curtailing police militarization.

The leftward drift of the Democratic Party has also afforded voters a clearer choice. Although I disagreed with the Affordable Care Act on policy grounds, at least it was a comprehensive attempt at reform in an area where half-measures are unlikely to do much good, and it was a salient enough policy that it essentially drove two national elections in 2010 and 2012. Voters had their say.

The rise of democratic socialism is already beginning to afford Americans a much-needed, clarifying debate on just how much power government should have over our lives, property, and choices.

Prior to the polarization of the parties in Congress, voters had largely unstructured views and no clear idea which party was more liberal and which was more conservative. As parties come to polarize on public policy, voters now enjoy a clearer choice between alternatives and are more likely to use ideology in voting decisions.

So we don’t need moderation, either as an ideological lodestar or as a pattern of legislative voting behavior. Ideological polarization represents authentic differences in philosophy of government, grounded in the nature of the underlying arguments.

This polarization is only a threat to American liberties if one side gains a durable, national majority, but along with polarization we have seen a tendency toward closeness in federal elections and a midterm backlash against the incumbent party. These are healthy developments.

If ideological polarization is not a problem for the United States, what is? I identify three here: tribalism, irresponsible parties, and excessive status quo bias.

By “tribalism” I mean the tendency of voters, even (or especially) the highly informed, to derive their policy positions and evaluations of government from their partisanship, rather than vice versa. The main cost of tribalism is actually that it prevents ideologues from holding their own side accountable. Instead, we get politics consumed with personalities and symbolism over substance. Tribalist bias also prevents ideologues from adapting their policy views to evidence. Raising the social status of heterodoxy and changing one’s mind could help encourage more open-minded thinking.

Although partisanship is strong among American voters, parties themselves are organizationally weak. As a result, they are unable to restrain politicians who sacrifice the party’s objectives to personal interest. For instance, Senator Ted Cruz rallied House Republicans to allow a federal government shutdown in 2013, not just because he is ideologically extreme, but arguably because he could use the episode to grow his personal network with a view to a later presidential campaign. The incident probably harmed the Republican Party at the next midterm, and conservatives gained nothing in policy terms. The problem is not that we don’t have enough party-line voting—we do—but that individual politicians are less accountable to voters when they can campaign against their own party—an essentially dishonest tactic given that legislators almost always vote with their party when it really matters.

Strengthening parties by removing contribution limits to and by parties—and by allowing parties, as private organizations, to decide their own nomination processes—would help to restrain irresponsible actors and encourage parties, ideological as they are, to be more strategic about realizing their policy objectives.

Finally, ideological polarization in Congress does lead to more gridlock and less policy change whenever there is divided government. It is appropriate for a political system to encourage some gridlock and status quo bias, but there is certainly some optimum amount of gridlock beyond which the value of preventing change turns negative. The United States likely has too much gridlock, preventing action on critical issues from climate change to the entitlement bomb. Major policy change is now impossible without unified party control of Congress and the Presidency and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a combination unlikely to be realized again for a long time. Abolishing the filibuster could significantly loosen up the policy process without exposing the United States to the risk of extreme policy swings typical of Westminster-style, unicameral, parliamentary systems.

In summary, a few sensible institutional reforms and changes in social attitudes could make the U.S. political system work much better without sacrificing genuine differences of opinion on the proper role of government to a mushy moderation.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Growing political polarization has made it difficult for the American left and right to understand one another, much less to work together. Darrell M. West blames several factors for this, including our electoral system itself, the news media, and low voter turnout — a state of affairs in which nearly by definition, only those with extreme views will vote. He suggests several measures to make it easier to vote and floats the idea of mandatory voting as well. He also recommends conscious, real-world engagement with our nominal political enemies and widening our menu of information sources.

Response Essays

  • Jason Sorens says that moderation is not the same thing as tolerance, pragmatism, or open-mindedness. Moderation hides political problems rather than solving them, and often it perpetuates evil. Parties with sharp ideological differences give voters a meaningful choice, which is surely a virtue in a democracy. Party discipline should be stronger, he says, as this, and not moderation, will counteract tribalism.

  • We fail to be moderate, says Trevor Burrus, because so much is at stake. The way to moderation is by lowering the stakes and devolving more authority to state and local governments. A widely diverse electorate of 330 million people cannot possibly be expected to agree on all the things that present-day politics demands of it. Today a razor-thin national majority is sufficient to enact many sweeping policy changes that bind on everyone, and it should thus be no surprise that our politics are acrimonious. The results won’t change until the system itself changes.

  • Geoffrey Kabaservice blames the Republican Party for the partisanship on display in recent American politics. If moderation means an occasional willingness to break the ideological mold, this is the quality he believes to be lacking, and he has little optimism about its return. Meanwhile declining life expectancy, climate change, and rising federal debt are all major problems in need of broadly appealing solutions.