About this Issue
Both the American public and their representatives in Congress are more politically polarized today than at any time in living memory. The disappearance of the center portends a much angrier political climate, with fewer compromises and more extremism all around.
So how did we get here? What exactly are we in for? Is there a path back to moderation, and if so, should we take it? Or not? Is there a good in extremism, and if so, can we specify it? (And meanwhile how do we contain the bad that clearly also exists?)
Here to discuss this month are Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution, Jason Sorens of Dartmouth College, Geoffrey Kabaservice of the Niskanen Center, and Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute. We also welcome readers’ comments through the end of the month.
Why We Need Political Moderation and How to Encourage It
Political polarization is one of the great challenges of our time because of the distance between the parties. For example, it is not uncommon for two-thirds of Republicans to favor one view, while two-thirds of Democrats prefer the opposite. This is true both on domestic and foreign policies.
The chasm that exists between Republicans and Democrats as well as liberals and conservatives makes it difficult for elected officials to engage in the compromise and negotiation that is vital to conflict resolution. It is hard to reconcile differing viewpoints when each side has its own facts and the policy gulf is so wide.
Huge gaps based on partisanship also pose dangers for democracy because they breed extremism and intolerance and make it difficult to have civil dialogue. Shrillness is typical when policy discussions are based on strong divisions.
For these reasons, we need to revive moderation as a central element in American politics. It is a way to strengthen our democracy, rebuild our societal glue, and promote meaningful substantive debate over major issues. It would help in political problem-solving and make it easier to address pressing national and international difficulties.
Failure to move in this direction will risk extreme policies. People will drift further apart, it will be impossible to solve policy challenges, and national discussions will intensify conflict and push people away from each other.
The country has not always been as polarized as it is today. In the 1950s, for example, more than half of the members of the U.S. Congress were moderate in their voting records. Many legislators routinely supported legislation from the other party and were willing to negotiate their differences in order to get bills enacted.
Jump forward to today and that no longer is the case. The percentage of House members who are moderate in their voting records is below five percent. It is hard to find moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats who vote with the opposing party. Instead, party and ideological divisions have hardened and made compromise look like selling out to the opposition and having no principles.
The current divide has unfolded over a long period of time and for a range of different reasons. Everything from economic disparities, news media coverage, technological change, and cultural values has intensified differences. As an illustration, the country’s prosperity is divided between the coasts and the heartland. A Brookings Metropolitan Policy program analysis has shown only 15 percent of America’s counties generate 64 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Far too many people are being left behind, and they are upset with the status quo and willing to support unconventional politicians who promise to shake things up.
News coverage has contributed to the political divisions as well. There is information segregation with each side having its own perspectives, and that prevents people from having reasonable discussions and taking steps to resolve tensions. Social media play a role in fueling extremism because it is easy to find like-minded people online and perspectives that echo one’s existing viewpoints. That is especially the case with opinions that are outside the political mainstream.
Disagreements over cultural values represent another part of the problem. There are major divisions between rural and urban areas as well as between people of differing educational attainments over religious liberty, personal lifestyles, and social issues. Unlike economic issues, where contesting parties sometimes can split the differences, it is hard to compromise on questions of fundamental values. Conflict over those types of issues can get quite intense and be impossible to reconcile.
Determining how to encourage bargaining and compromise involves addressing the current incentives politicians have to move to the extremes and fight the other side. One cannot make progress on political moderation without understanding the root causes of polarization and what can be done to address the sources of discontent.
One of the keys to the contemporary polarization is an electoral system and news media that rewards strong and uncompromising stances. For example, most American elections feature relatively low voter turnout. At the presidential level, only around 55 to 60 percent of the eligible electorate typically casts ballots. In midterm elections, the number is even lower, at 35 to 40 percent. Local races and primary contests sometimes have turnout as low as 15 to 20 percent.
In a situation of relatively low turnout, politicians have discovered one of the best ways to win is to play to the base and go to the political extremes. Rather than run as pragmatic problem-solvers who can work with the other party, many elected officials campaign by emphasizing their strong principles and willingness to stand up to political opponents.
It also is easy to focus on political extremes because they are more likely to vote than those in the political center. People who have strong feelings tend to vote, while those with a mild interest in politics often are among the non-voters. Those patterns skew the electorate in more extreme directions and make polarization more widespread.
Given this set of incentives, lowering the political temperature means raising overall turnout and reducing barriers to voting. If the United States had more people voting, it would be easier for moderates to be elected, and politicians would have fewer incentives to play to the extremes. Uncompromising rhetoric would turn off centrist voters and lead to the election of more pragmatic leaders.
How do we increase voter turnout so the political center has more weight? There are a range of election reforms that are associated with higher turnout. These include changes such as automatic registration for those turning 18 years old, early voting in the weeks leading up to the election, making it possible for people to register to vote while filing taxes and registering for motor vehicle licenses, and having a sufficient number of voting locations so people don’t have to go far or wait in long lines to cast their ballots.
Some countries have boosted their voter turnouts above 90 percent through universal or mandatory voting. In places such as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Singapore, and Switzerland, people are required to vote and failing to do so results in the equivalent of a small traffic fine. Creating the norm that people should vote and backing it up with a legal requirement and small fines leads most people to vote and generally creates a more moderate electorate that elects more pragmatic leaders.
But encouraging moderation will not be achieved simply by top-down election reforms. Polarization now is baked into America’s culture and media system. Addressing it will involve ordinary people undertaking efforts to depolarize political conversations and understand that opponents are not enemies.
In my book Divided Politics, Divided Nation, I suggest what I call “take a liberal/conservative to lunch.” Too often these days, political intolerance and mistrust has risen to the point where many people do not like to talk with people having opposing viewpoints. It is more comfortable to have friends and workmates with similar views. That way, there are no uncomfortable arguments or disputed facts.
Having conversations with political adversaries represents a way to put a human face on disagreements and learn why others have a different point of view. It is not that the lunch will produce political agreement and “Kumbaya” and hugging at the end of the meal. But people are likely to see the other person not as an enemy, but as someone with a different point of view. In the long run, engaging with those who have differing opinions will help to encourage moderation and bring the country back together.
Today, we are far from that kind of model. National surveys show that 50 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats would be upset if one of their children married someone from the opposite party. People live in gated communities that separate individuals along political, cultural, racial, income, and educational lines. Research by the Public Religion Research Institute has found that “if you looked at the average white person’s 100 closest friends, you would find that 91 would be white. If you looked at the average black person’s 100 closest friends, 83 of them would be black.”
As long as the broader society is divided along these kinds of lines, it will be hard to overcome polarization and extremism. Having a lack of social interactions across categories of race, gender, and class intensifies suspicion and misunderstanding, and makes it difficult to bridge personal differences. Cultural gaps widen in that situation and produce clear divisions.
The digital world is equally isolating. People can find politically reinforcing communities whenever they want, whether it is liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, libertarian, green, or gay. Technology helps people overcome the limitations of geography and find the individuals who share their basic viewpoint. An analysis of social media tweeting by sociologists Eric Forbush and Nicol Turner-Lee found a communications “echo chamber” in which people retweet within very narrow political networks. That kind of behavior promotes both extremism and polarization, and it makes it more difficult to govern fairly and effectively.
The problem with clear-cut separation based on party or ideology is widespread misunderstanding. It is hard to understand people from differing backgrounds when there is limited personal or social contact. Opinions are more likely to be stereotypical and based on what you think the other group is like rather than what they actually are. Caricatures create hidden or unconscious biases, and these stereotypes have political and social consequences. For example, if you have a low opinion of adversaries, it is easy to justify poor treatment of them. This type of mentality also encourages voter suppression and efforts to marginalize the opposition.
To combat this cultural divide, people need to diversify their information sources. Individuals should get their news and information from a variety of places. One major contributing force behind polarization is a sharply divided news media system and social media networks. People need to end that approach to information-gathering and seek material from across the political spectrum. For example, I get news from liberal, moderate, and conservative points of view. I like to hear information from multiple points of view because it helps me make up my own mind. I find it easier to break through the cacophony of information when there are divergent points of view. That way, I have a deeper understanding of major issues and have the material necessary to determine my own perspective.
In today’s galvanizing environment, people need to resist the social media temptation to jump to immediate conclusions based on single words or sentences. It is easy in the worlds of Twitter and Facebook to overreact, take things out of context, and judge others based on incomplete or misleading information. Rather than being judicious and taking time to assess a new development, a particular event, or a provocative statement, social media encourage instant reactions that can inflame people’s discussions. Being more thoughtful in drawing conclusions would restore some moderation to political debates and help the country have more reasonable discussions about major issues.
Finally, it is important to address geographic disparities and differences based on financial well-being. As long as there are fundamental differences in economic circumstances between rural and urban areas as well as the coasts and the heartland, it will be impossible to bring people together. Lingering resentment from those left behind will fuel political discontent and intensify societal conflict. People who aren’t doing well will be more likely to turn to extreme policies and unconventional politicians in an effort to improve their personal situation. They will find scapegoats to blame for their dismal economic conditions. Dealing with these types of inequities is vital to reducing polarization and reviving moderation in American politics.
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.
Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Game: Why a Properly Enforced Constitutional Order is Preferable to “Moderation”
Darrell M. West makes a straightforward and familiar call for more political moderation in his lead essay, “Why We Need Political Moderation and How to Encourage It.” On its face it is a sensible argument, one that I have sympathy for. I am also disturbed by the level of vitriol in our politics, and I’m not sanguine that it will get better before it gets worse. Moreover, as a libertarian, especially in the age of Trump, I increasingly try to act as a bridge between my friends on the left and my friends on the right, mollifying the tension and trying to find common ground, but that is steadily becoming more difficult to do.
While “moderation” can work as a valuable philosophy in a variety of areas, it will not solve our political woes. Nor will expanding the franchise, increasing the diversity of our communities and our newsfeeds, or adopting a more respectful attitude toward our ideological opponents—as laudable as those things are. Our political woes are more endogenous to the system in which they’ve arisen than most people realize. Or, in layman’s terms, don’t hate the player, hate the game.
That schoolyard phrase encapsulates the three primary missteps in West’s essay. First, the increasing centralization of government over an increasingly decentralized and diverse people will inevitably create conflict. Second, as long as centralizing politics continues to push diverse people into unstable collectives, it will be fruitless to bemoan the negative and hateful attitudes that people develop as a consequence of that centralization. And third, the increasing diversity of political opinions, social values, ideological niches, and community structures is not something we should lament but celebrate. We instead need to find a political structure better attuned to it.
The old model of centralized government simply doesn’t work for this new level of diversity, and that’s okay. All political theories are contingent upon human behavior and underlying social realities. The small Athenian polis was contingent upon the small, relatively homogeneous population of Athens as well as existing community and family structures. Similarly, Spartan authoritarianism was contingent upon the militarized orientation of Spartan society. The American governing project is orders of magnitude larger and more complex than those, but it still suffers from the same underlying contingencies. When the government’s aims and form no longer match the people’s, cracks develop.
Often, the first sign of those cracks are laments about the quality of the people, and questions about whether they are still worthy of their government. Currently, that comes in the form of complaints about political animosity, voter ignorance, and low voter turnout. Next might come attempts by the government to fix the “underlying problem” of the people, perhaps through mandatory voting or educational programs. When those fail—and they will—then perhaps we can get to addressing the true problem: a federal government that is simply too big and centralized to effectively rule over 330 million wildly diverse people.
The Framers of our Constitution understood that centralization was a dangerous tendency in political systems and that it wouldn’t work in America. In learning how the American colonies united against the British, we tend to gloss over the diversity that existed underneath that unity. The colonies were a patchwork of different ethnicities, cultures, religions, and languages. By the time of the Revolution they had come to understand that it was important to unite against a common foe, but they had no illusions that unifying could do much more than provide for the common defense of the colonies.
Consequently, the first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, represents that thinking: a “firm league of friendship” was needed between the colonies, but not much more. Such a friendship doesn’t imply a high level of control. Friends don’t tell each other how to run their households, how to raise their children, or what value system they should live under. Friends are there to help out when needed, but not to run each other’s lives.
In time, of course, some came to see the Articles of Confederation as lacking, and they proposed a convention to “render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” The resulting four-month-long Constitutional Convention primarily dealt with the question of how to safely increase the power of the federal government without it becoming a danger to the rights and liberties of the people. The proposed Constitution offered a delicate balance, but one that the Federalists believed could be maintained.
The “Anti-Federalists,” however—the Pharisees of our political religion—believed that the proposed Constitution vested an uncontrollable amount of power in the federal government. That power would eventually rear its head and create problems. In a remarkably prescient essay, published only a month after the Constitution was signed, the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” warned that “[t]he powers of the general legislature [Congress] extend to every case that is of the least importance—there is nothing valuable to human nature, nothing dear to freemen, but what is within its power.” Consequently, Congress “has authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and property of every man in the United States; nor can the constitution or laws of any state, in any way prevent or impede the full and complete execution of every power given.”
Yet Brutus’s true prescience was shown in his understanding of what this would do to a diverse country. After all, the “territory of the United States is of vast extent; it now contains near three millions of souls, and is capable of containing much more than ten times that number.” Should we reasonably expect “a country, so large and so numerous as they will soon become, to elect a representation, that will speak their sentiments, without their becoming so numerous as to be incapable of transacting public business?”
Brutus is thought to have been Robert Yates, a prominent New York judge and politician who attended the first part of the Constitutional Convention as a New York delegate and left when he became convinced that the convention was proposing a government that was both illegal and unwise. He was a “small republic” man, a follower of Montesquieu’s conviction that an effective republic had to be small to prevent “men of large fortunes” from “oppressing [their] fellow citizens.” This is especially true when the citizenship is diverse. Yates’s most prescient passage is worth quoting at length:
In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogeneous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.
While the Anti-Federalists partially lost the fight over the Constitution—but importantly secured the adoption of a bill of rights—we should not remember them only as benighted fools standing athwart the obvious progress of our sacred founding document. The question at the heart of the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate was not whether having a large central government with power over everything was a good idea. It was whether the Constitution in fact created such a government. Essentially every Framer and member of the founding generation, from Washington to Adams to Madison to Yates, would have agreed that it would be a mistake to create a constitution that “vested great and uncontrollable powers” in the federal government, in Brutus’s words. The Federalists believed their document didn’t do that.
Now, unquestionably, we have such a government. To highlight the absurdity: we have a governing system where it is simultaneously legal and illegal to smoke marijuana in Colorado. That means someone screwed up somewhere, and it wasn’t the states, which certainly always had the power to regulate drugs within their borders. Rather, it was a federal government and cooperating judges that “found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, [was] a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” again in the words of Brutus.
Consequently, the diverse virtues, vices, pleasures, and passions of 330 million people are funneled into Washington, D.C. to fight over how “we” want to live as a country. Yet that truly royal “we”—or perhaps it should be called the “democratic we”—is the animating fiction of our centralizing politics. Our “we” is now produced by the razor-thin margins by which our national elections are decided. “The people have spoken,” the winners claim, “and now we’re going to ram it down the losers’ throats.”
That, of course, is an essential characteristic of democracy, that the losers must suffer through the results. But an essential characteristic of a properly constructed republic is that there are limits to what can be inflicted on the losers. Those limits, at least as originally contemplated in our constitutional order, ensure that losing a national election only affects truly national issues. It won’t greatly affect whether citizens can live their lives in accordance with their deepest values: how to raise and educate children, how to manage health care and the choices that affect it, how to thrive as a family and as a community.
No wonder we hate each other. We’re living out an ongoing season of “wife swap,” in which two groups with wildly different values are forced to live together. “Let’s see what happens when a vegan is forced to live with a big-game hunters” may be good for television, but it’s bad for a nation.
The behaviors lamented by West —the death of moderation, the segregation of news sources, the geographical divides, the cross-party hatred—are more a product of this system than some exogenous source. High-stakes, winner-take-all elections produce high-stakes, winner-take-all behavior. Politics makes us worse, especially the more that politics matters. Add to this the centrifugal forces of diversifying information sources, cultural influencers, entertainment affinities, and much more, and you’ve got an unstable situation. And asking people to be better won’t help.
But diversity of opinion, information, and values is only a political liability if those on the “other side” have undue control over your life and your values. A creationist family and an evolutionist family can be next-door neighbors and great friends. Force them to fight over which theory will be imposed on the other’s children, however, and that friendship is likely to fray. Do that on a national level, where representation is more attenuated, and you’re likely to see entire swaths of the country hating each other.
Moderation, therefore, is a red herring. Moderation exists within a framework of shared values, and it hashes out the differences through concession and mediation. But in a world where politics has become war due to centralizing forces, a world where, as Hillary Clinton put it, “you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” moderation is akin to hoping for spontaneous mutual disarmament. But that’s not how wars end. Wars end when combatants agree to establish borders, set up jurisdictions, and stay on their side. Our political war began when the borders and jurisdictions set up by the Constitution were broken down or entirely removed, and it will only end when they’re re-established.
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.
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.
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.
Moderation: Whatever It Is, It’s Overrated
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as Truth, and as uncompromising as Justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.
The words of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, from the first issue of his newspaper The Liberator, are inspiring to our post-moderation-on-slavery ears. I applaud Jason Sorens’s contribution arguing that moderation isn’t inherently attractive and is often positively damaging. “Moderation” is an indexical term, like its cohort “extremism,” and by itself has little meaning. But in a world where, say, drug prohibition is the status quo, the “extreme” position is to argue for legalization of all drugs for purchase by adults. The “moderate” position is apparently to roll back some penalties for “soft” drugs while doubling down on punishing opioid users and the doctors who “over prescribe.”
But drug prohibition is evil. In fact, I would argue that the drug war is the evilest thing the federal government has ever done except for slavery. On that point, I am in earnest and I will not equivocate.
Practicing such “extremism” can be a lonely endeavor, as libertarians know. We were “immoderate” on issues such as gay marriage and drug legalization before it was cool, and we will continue to be “immoderate” on issues such as war and immigration.
On some issues, such as free speech and free trade, the “extreme” position—near absolute freedom for both—seemed to be the “moderate” one for a few decades. We now see support eroding for both, and of course America’s protections for free speech are regarded as extreme throughout the Western world. But on those issues too, I will not equivocate.
Yes, moderation is overrated.
Darrell West’s response to my essay makes good points about whether a return to federalism would in fact reduce polarization and conflict. I think polarization and conflict would remain, but it wouldn’t matter that much if your political opponents don’t have undue control over your life. If we understood, for example, that the federal government essentially has no constitutionally legitimate role in health care, then we can stop talking about a national “Medicare-for-all” program and focus on state-based solutions. People could then vote with their feet and sort themselves into more-or-less like-minded communities that pursue broadly common goals.
But, as West points out, “morality issues” like abortion will still be a problem. This is also true, but that’s just another reason why Roe v. Wade was not only wrongly decided as a matter of constitutional law, it was strategically ill-considered. Nothing has torn our country apart more than imposing a single, nationwide rule for abortion. It galvanized the Evangelical movement and pushed them into the arms of the Republican Party. It helped foster the conservative/libertarian legal movement, and it helped turn our judicial confirmations into acrimonious farces. Few things better demonstrate the validity of my general thesis—that one-size-fits-all policies imposed on 330 million diverse people will create animosity and polarization—than abortion.
In his response, Geoffrey Kabaservice makes an interesting point about Republicans being more at fault for polarization, which I think is probably true, but it is worth considering why this happened. I am no Republican, to say the least, but if we take actual, worthy-of-the name conservatives—conservatives like Jonah Goldberg—and examine their beliefs and history as a movement, we might get an idea about why conservatives went “extreme” faster than the left.
You can’t understand the modern conservative movement without understanding it as a persecution movement. Conservatism in the 70s and 80s was carried along by the rise of Reagan, the emergence of right-wing talk radio (especially Limbaugh), and publications like National Review. The growing conservative media had a message that resonated with many: they’re lying to you. “They” were the four main institutions that dominated the dissemination of political and cultural information: public schools, universities, Hollywood, and the mainstream media. All were controlled by the left, and all told a story that had reached the status of “received wisdom.”
I grew up learning that story. FDR’s New Deal saved America. Recycling is always worth it. Public schools are essential to a developed nation. Unions help workers. There’s a significant gender pay gap due to discrimination. Gun control works, and more is needed. The minimum wage is necessary. Et cetera.
Some of these claims may be correct, but all of them are legitimately contentious. Rarely, however, was any attempt made to show the other side. Upon hearing the other side, perhaps by tuning into Rush Limbaugh or picking up National Review, many future conservatives and libertarians were legitimately shocked and a little angered at the bias of the left-wing cultural milieu.
Right-wing radio, and eventually Fox News, became a near salvific force in many people’s lives. They embraced what my colleague Julian Sanchez has termed “epistemic closure.” And, despite the dominance of right-wing talk radio and the eventual dominance of Fox News, conservatives developed and cultivated deep persecution complex about how their ideas and values were presented and received by the “outside” world. That resentment and epistemic closure eventually boiled over in the form of Donald Trump.
While this story that many conservatives tell themselves is not entirely accurate, it is accurate enough to better understand modern conservatives—and some libertarians. The mainstream media was, and is, biased against conservatives. The New York Times hasn’t endorsed a Republican for president since Eisenhower in 1956. The Washington Post has never endorsed a Republican for president and, in 2014, it endorsed 44 Democrats and 3 Republicans for D.C., Virginia, and Maryland races. If these numbers were flipped, Democrats would trust both papers as little as modern Republicans do.
People can lament Republican “extremism,” but I think it is important to realize how the left’s domination of cultural institutions helped create it.
And, on that point, what is the Republican “extremism,” or at least immoderation, that Kabaservice highlights? Was the 2017 tax cut a form of immoderation? It seems so to Kabaservice because “the absence of moderate influence in crafting that tax cut is evident in its passage without a single Democratic vote.” Kabaservice also seems to think that because the 2017 tax cut was a bad idea that will boost the debt by $1.9 trillion over a decade, then that also indicates its immoderation. But if the American pastime of boosting the debt is immoderate, I guess almost no one can qualify as moderate. Moreover, it seems odd to call a tax cut a manifestation of immoderation in a country that was founded on a tax revolt.
In fact, throughout both West’s and Kabaservice’s contributions, I’m not quite sure what “moderation” is. If legislation passed without single opposing party vote is immoderate, then I guess the Affordable Care Act is also an example. And if legislation that doesn’t work in principle and in theory counts as immoderate, then the ACA would also count.
Finally, we should think about proposed solutions to the purported problem of immoderation in two broad categories: 1) fixing the people and 2) fixing the system. Fixing the people solutions tend to look at immoderation as a problem with people’s attitudes, information, motivations, and experiences. Fixing the system solutions tend to focus more on adjusting our governmental structures so that immoderation is less costly and more contained.
My contribution focused on fixing the system, and as such it was in line with the Madisonian view of using institutions to mitigate the effects of people’s ignorance and self-interested motivations. Federalist No. 10 is of course a masterful exploration of how a diverse electorate can mitigate the self-interested motivations of factions. The Electoral College was supposed to exercise independent judgment and thus be a bulwark between the presidency and the ignorance and parochial concerns of the common man. The House of Representatives, being the only popularly elected body in the original Constitution, was to be checked by a Senate that would not be an embodiment of the foibles and shortcomings of the average voter. And finally, as I pointed out, a properly constrained federal government would not pit South Carolinians against New Yorkers in a battle over which will control the other’s way of life.
West’s essay largely focuses on “fixing the people” solutions. I’m skeptical, however, that such exhortations will do anything to overcome the basic tendencies of humans to remain ignorant about things that they have little control over (e.g. their government through voting), to prefer associating with like-minded people, to seek information that confirms rather than challenges their beliefs, to hold prejudices against groups they have rarely interacted with, and to segregate into communities that broadly have the policies they prefer. Those are powerful forces, and mandatory voting, political conversations, and information diversification are unlikely to do much to combat them.
Madison understood that, to a large extent, we must accept the foibles and limitations of people when constructing a government that protects liberty yet allows for collective action when needed. The task is to design a government that is suitable to the people, not a people who are suitable to the government.
How Moderates Describe Themselves
As an undergraduate, I majored in political science and hated it. To me, it seemed like a retelling of history from which living, breathing human beings had been abstracted out. So when I set out to write a history of moderate Republicans, I paid considerably less attention to how the political science literature described them than I did to how they described themselves.
This experience came to mind while reading Jason Sorens’s definition of moderation. “Political moderation,” he writes, “should not be confused with tolerance, pragmatism, willingness to compromise, resistance to political tribalism, or open-mindedness.” Unfortunately for Sorens’s argument, this in fact is how virtually all moderates I wrote about defined themselves. Sorens claims that moderation in politics instead attempts to find “a middle ground between viewpoints” and “seeks to average over the political alternatives on offer in a particular society at a particular time.” Precisely none of the moderates I dealt with would have defined their outlook in that way. The contention that “[m]oderation is necessarily bound by time and place” is true but meaningless; the same could be said of liberalism, conservatism, and just about any other political outlook one cares to mention.
Given that there is no overlap between Sorens’s conception of moderates—which in broad outline is shared by numerous other critics of moderation—and moderates’ self-conception, it seems futile to argue point-by-point against his verdict that moderation has little to recommend it. One might note, however, the historical reality that Martin Luther King Jr. at various points defined his non-violent, civil-disobedience approach to dismantling segregation as moderate as well as radical; that moderate Republicans were among the foremost advocates of civil rights in Congress; and that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were products of the tolerance, pragmatism, and willingness to compromise that characterized moderation in political action.
As for Sorens’s broader argument that political polarization is a good thing in that it gives voters a clearer choice of alternatives and (once the pesky filibuster is abolished) will overcome present political gridlock and dysfunction, that seems a recapitulation of the central recommendation of the American Political Science Association’s 1950 report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” The report called for more centralized, ideologically defined political parties, on the grounds that this was the best way to pass more effective, executable programs. But as Sorens himself recognizes, ideological polarization has not led to a more effective Congress but the reverse. The disappearance of moderation from the Republican side and (as Darrell West points out) its erosion on the Democratic side has given us a Congress that is incapable of passing a highway bill, let alone taking action on the more intractable and devastating problems that confront the nation.
Trevor Burrus’s invocation of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s broadside against moderation and compromise has resonances he may not have considered. Garrison believed that the evil of slavery meant that civil war was preferable to moderation. Are we in an analogous situation now? Yes, according to a growing number of right-wing Republicans and religious fundamentalists who believe that abortion (among other moral issues) will precipitate a new civil war. Burrus suggests that the only way to avoid internecine strife over issues like abortion is to repeal Roe vs. Wade and allow states to make their own rules—ideally, perhaps, in a para-national entity restored to sort of governance that prevailed in the halcyon era of the Articles of Confederation. But in which states, one wonders, will there be such harmonious ideological consensus that abortion will no longer be a contentious moral issue? None that I can think of, and certainly not in states like Alabama and Missouri where Republicans are currently seeking to criminalize and eliminate abortion.
The conservative leader William Rusher was no fan of political moderation, but even he realized that such a “highly pluralistic” democracy as America “requires constant compromise among people who differ passionately.” He warned anti-abortion activists that “a position that by its very nature cannot be compromised is therefore a constant menace to the health and stability of the body politic.”
In his 1960 work Parties and Politics in America, political scientist Clinton Rossiter famously declared: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no parties without compromise and moderation.” If the enemies of compromise and moderation ever should get their way, I fully expect that the eventual result would be the demise of every other link in that chain: parties, politics, democracy, and America.