Moderation and Our Looming Disasters

I have been studying and advocating political moderation for the past two decades, so Darrell West and I no doubt agree on the desirability of restoring and reinvigorating what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the vital center.” But much has changed since the time when the future appeared to belong to “Third Way” moderates like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. If the public is going to embrace moderation as the way forward in our present circumstances, the argument for such an approach requires somewhat more context than Dr. West’s essay provides.

Moderation often is described as a temperament more than a particular set of policies. Dr. West’s call for Americans to get their news from multiple ideological sources, engage in civil dialogue with political opponents, muster fact-based arguments for policies, and maintain an openness to compromise fits this description. Organizations like Better Angels are putting this kind of moderation into practice by scaling up Dr. West’s notion of “tak[ing] a liberal/conservative to lunch,” trying to get liberals and conservatives to communicate with one another and to recognize their shared values and common humanity. Such efforts are worthy and necessary.

But one wouldn’t know from Dr. West’s essay that the political polarization we experience today in the United States is asymmetric; the Republican Party has gone much further right than the Democratic Party has (so far) gone left. For the past half-century, the conservative movement has been on a mission to purge moderates from the GOP and by now has achieved near-total victory. Only a handful of Republican moderates remain in the House and Senate, although blue-state moderate Republican governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker are among the most popular politicians in the country. But the American political system is unlikely to function unless the Republican Party suffers repeated electoral setbacks and/or returns to the path of moderation it pursued for most of its history.

The left is equally as capable of driving political polarization as the right, as can be seen on college and university campuses where conservatives have disappeared from the faculty along with the erosion of free thought and civil liberties. Extreme versions of identity politics and intersectionalism, if embraced by whoever emerges as the Democrats’ 2020 presidential candidate, would be as damaging to national unity as Trump’s populist ethno-nationalism. But if moderation encompasses a willingness to break with the regnant ideology of one’s own party and move toward the center, at least on a few issues, then the Democratic Party still includes a critical mass of moderates. Indeed, while the ideological firebrands in the Democrats’ entering congressional class draw the most attention, the party retook the House by running moderate candidates who flipped Republican-held, mostly suburban districts across the land.

As moderates have disappeared from the GOP, so too has the party’s ability to govern. Republican control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2017–18 resulted in almost no legislative achievements other than the 2017 tax cut. And the absence of moderate influence in crafting that tax cut is evident in its passage without a single Democratic vote, its ineffectiveness (it has led to an explosion of stock buybacks rather than investment), and its fiscal incontinence (the CBO has estimated it will boost the deficit by $1.9 trillion over a decade).

Dr. West defines political moderates in part as those who “routinely support legislation from the other party,” a description that inadvertently echoes the conservative charge that GOP moderates are “Republicans in Name Only.” But the 2017 tax cut example points out that moderate Republicans’ pragmatism and compromise had previously been critical in what had been considered conservative achievements such as budgetary restraint, revenue sharing, the 1985 tax reform, and market-based alternatives to federal programs. The absence of moderation, paradoxically, is a key reason why a conservative-dominated Republican Party can’t pass popular, successful, and enduring conservative policies. The only areas of political life at which the present-day GOP excels are stacking the courts with conservatives when in the majority, and scorched-earth obstruction when in the minority.

The hallmarks of moderation’s absence—the breakdown of civility and the rise of polarization-driven political dysfunction—might not matter if times were good. Unfortunately, the country is struggling with terrible problems that are dragging it down even in a time of enormous prosperity. Dr. West correctly identifies the widening inequality between the booming metropoles and the left-behind rural areas and smaller towns where jobs and communities have disappeared, resulting in family dissolution and the “deaths of despair” that have driven down U.S. life expectancy for three straight years. Federal debt is rising to unprecedented levels, and if unchecked is likely to drag down future growth and national income. And climate change and wide-scale biodiversity loss may end life as we know it on this planet.

People who think that moderation is merely incrementalism or difference-splitting believe that it’s exactly the wrong approach to take when faced with challenges of this magnitude. But moderation, according to the Earl of Halifax’s famous eighteenth-century metaphor of political “trimming,” is the effort to keep the ship of state and society on an even keel. Preventing the ship from capsizing in a gale can require tacking from side to side in the face of high winds and waves—though still holding to a course and relying on prudential judgment. In practice, this means that there can be such a thing as “radical moderation,” even though policies seeking radical reform would still be formulated through non-ideological, fact-based pragmatism and negotiation.

The odds are pretty low, however, of this kind of radical moderation becoming a major force in Congress anytime soon. Dr. West points out some of the forces leading Americans to sort themselves into like-minded ideological groupings, which—combined with computer-driven gerrymandering, low-turnout primaries, and the corruptions of money and influence—give electoral advantage to political extremists.

One could also note that since most districts are safe for one party or the other, only the handful of swing districts and purple states offer either party the chance of gaining the majority. Most of the House Republicans displaced from those swing districts in 2018 were the GOP’s scarce remaining moderates. Few tears were shed for their defeats, either by conservatives, who saw them as RINO sellouts, or by liberals, who considered them to be an insufficient counterforce to conservatism and President Trump’s worst instincts. But the entire span of American history suggests that significant, enduring policy reforms require some measure of bipartisan support in Congress in order to gain public acceptance and legitimacy. In an era when the voting public is too divided to deliver sizable margins to either party, Democrats can only gain majorities by eliminating their potential negotiating partners in the GOP.

Perhaps some of the measures proposed by Dr. West to increase election turnouts and reduce barriers to voting would increase the number of moderates in office. But I fear that extremists will still hold the edge, certainly in the GOP, unless the time comes when taking action against the country’s problems (as opposed to offering up the usual rhetoric), and rejecting obstruction and demagoguery, becomes politically popular. And my guess is that won’t happen until we’re confronted with large-scale disaster. I’d love to be proved wrong.

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.