Replies on Political Moderation

I appreciate the thoughtful replies to my essay on why America needs less extremism and more moderation. Each author makes a number of important points that help us understand what is happening today in American politics. Equally important, they do so from very different philosophical orientations, which offers considerable food for thought.

Geoffrey Kabaservice discusses our “looming disasters” in terms of health, climate change, and debt, and says Republicans bear much of the responsibility for the decline of moderation because of their sharp move to the right and embrace of extremist viewpoints. He certainly is correct in noting the GOP’s lurch to the right. Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein popularized this notion of “asymmetrical polarization” and trace its roots to Republican shifts in messaging, strategy, and policy over the past few decades. For much of the recent past, there is substantial evidence to support that interpretation.

But now Democrats are moving significantly to the left. In the 2018 midterm elections, a number of progressive Democrats were elected who are taking very strong stands. They are proposing major plans to address climate change, income inequality, healthcare, and the high costs of college education. And in the 2020 presidential election, Democratic candidates have proposed a wealth tax, Medicare for all, free college, and the abolition of the Electoral College, among other things.

It remains an open question whether those views will make it into the party platform and reshape its overall contour. It makes a difference whether the turn to the left is fleeting or permanent and whether the eventual party nominee will embrace or moderate those perspectives. There are clear consequences for national discourse and future policies depending on the extent to which Democrats move to the left wing. If matters quite a lot for polarization how far Democrats go in that direction and how many voters they attract.

Trevor Burrus attributes the loss of moderation to the high stakes of current policy challenges. He suggests that when the stakes are high, people fight harder and get more emotionally invested in the outcome. In so doing, voters correctly understand the “winner-take-all” mentality of today’s world that elevates the extent of political conflict.

His remedy is to devolve more responsibility to states and localities so that community preferences can guide public policymaking. If one state wants to have restrictive fiscal policies while others do not, that is the beauty of American federalism and a way to defuse partisan discontent. His proposal makes the simple but compelling point that in a country as big and heterogeneous as the United States, it is hard to have one solution to every problem.

Yet if his general stance were adopted, it is not clear in a nationally oriented media environment, it would reduce polarization and conflict. There certainly could be some issues where that is the case, such as currently is the case with highway speed limits. Western states with broad expanses of highway sometimes prefer higher speeds than other places, and federalism makes that possible without such controversy.

Such a non-contentious resolution may not be possible on other kinds of issues, though. Morality issues may not be amendable to federalism solutions because people are quick to rage not just by what they see within their own states but by what happens in other states. Just witness the outcry in liberal states when Alabama and Missouri recently passed restrictive abortion policies. Pro-choice activists in other locales saw those moves not as a reasonable way to cater to more conservative populations in those states but as a betrayal of equal rights and personal freedoms. They interpreted those actions as conservative legislators imposing their will in an unfair and unjust manner. Rather than dampening conflict and polarization, the legislation simply intensified the outrage of the opposition. If that dynamic plays out on other issues, federalism likely will not be a panacea towards ameliorating the intense polarization we see today.

Jason Sorens defines the polarization problem away by saying moderation is not the same thing as tolerance or pragmatism and claiming America actually needs parties with sharp ideological differences and strong party discipline. The latter approach may be useful from the standpoint of breaking policy gridlock but it is hard to see it reducing polarization. In my view, one of the reasons our politics has become rigid, inflexible, unyielding, intolerant, and loath to compromise is the rise of ideologically focused parties that have moved to the wings. Extreme policies make many things worse, including our ability to address Kabaservice’s looming disasters. It is hard to see why getting more ideological and partisan differentiation will put us in a better position to reduce conflict and solve policy problems. Instead, it will make both problems worse.

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.