Moderation Is Good for Moderates

After reading Darrell West’s reply and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s essay in favor of moderation, it strikes me that the case for moderation is quite persuasive indeed to moderates. But the “meta-political” case for moderation fails.

I actually share a fair bit of the typical, elite-moderate agenda: doing something multilateral about climate change, gradually reducing federal liabilities, free trade, gradually liberalizing immigration, and a truce on the culture war. But one does not have to adopt a comprehensively moderate ideology to come to these policy positions; I certainly don’t. Note as well that these views are in some cases quite far from those of the median American voter.

For conservatives, the current Republican Party has been working quite well. The ordinary course of things is for government to grow, and so merely stopping policy change has been enough to make the Trump Administration the most “conservative” of the last century. For conservatives, going back to the “bad old days” when people like George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole ran the party and cooperated in liberal policy change is no solution.

For progressives, appearing to be moderate makes sense as a tactical ploy. American voters do not generally like forthrightly left-wing candidates, but they also do not necessarily punish left-wing policy change, particularly when it is bipartisan. But donning a moderate façade is, by definition, not a sincere conversion to the moderate cause.

If one engages with policy debates and comes away with substantively moderate positions, one will want others to adopt those views too. But let’s not pretend that the truth is most likely in the middle, or that if only American politics were more moderate, they would work better for everyone.

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.