I self-classify as a moderate conservative, and, as a result, get derided by people of all political persuasions.
To some Republicans (or Libertarians), I’m an fearful, empire-building statist unwilling to follow my principles to their logical conclusion. To some Democrats, I’m the fearful casualty of a far-right religious upbringing from which I’ve been unable to break free.
The truth? Somewhere in the middle, I’m sure — after all, I’m a moderate, right?!!
And that’s not good for whatever political ambitions I may have harbored as a child
A track record of occupying the middle ground is often a death sentence for political careers. At least it certainly seems to be right now. President Obama appears to have transitioned (whether permanently or not, we’ll see) from uncertain, well-spoken centrist into validated liberal lion, while the GOP is, well, struggling a bit out there on the fringe.
Principles, rather than solutions, are all the vogue. It’s relatively dark times for us more moderate types, because the moderate doesn’t do well in this environment.
People tend to associate moderates with expediency rather than principles.
But should they?
Is there anything to recommend moderation in politics, aside from its penchant for actually producing political action? In other words, is moderation all about solutions, or is there something more to it? Something principle-based perhaps? Well I certainly think there is, and I’ll take the opportunity to get up on my blogging soapbox and force some thoughts down the throats of you few who are committed to keep reading.
I want to distinguish between a couple different types of moderation.
There is a strain of moderation in politics that suggests that compromise, middle-of-the-road solutions are best — not only because they are feasible but because they are superior. After all, no one is right all the time, and compromise solutions tend to weed out extreme ideas and positions. If nothing else, a compromise usually results in cautious, incremental movement less likely to have the dire consequences that might be associated with extreme shifts in policy. It’s potential virtues aside, the key point is that if you subscribe to this type of moderation and the hard work of policymaking becomes quite easy. Have both sides give up a few things that they want in any debate and you have a solution — not only a solution, but a great solution. Problem solved.
But while the benefits of “process moderation” (shamelessly stealing that term from a friend, here) may sometimes be proven out in practice, it is, in my view, ultimately lazy moderation; it’s compromise for the sake of compromise stuff. I’m not a great fan. Certainly in the context of alternatives it’s often the lesser of evils, and while I occasionally get sucked into this variant, it is not, primarily, what I have come to view as true political moderation.
In fact, as pointed out by yet another friend, someone who self-describes as a political moderate based on their inflexible commitment to the center, may actually be quite immoderate (though this lack of moderation is only rarely exposed).
The second strain of moderation – the one that I like better — describes more of the moderates that I know. This type of moderation is associated with a focus on reality and respect for others’ opinions (or at least the political force of their opinions) rather than a passionate commitment to the political center. This type of political moderate is someone willing to temper their own preferred positions out of a recognition that, in a democratic society, if you don’t temper voluntarily, someone else is quite likely to eventually do the tempering for you — in a way you really may not like. After all, regression to the mean by way of pendulum swings, and all that . . . .
Let me try and explain with an example or two.
Occasionally, I hear Republicans talk as though the social welfare state emerged out of nowhere, as a government power grab foisted on an unwitting public by nefarious liberal leaders. Or Democrats talk about liberalization of gun rights or welfare reform like they were a conspiracy hatched by the wacked out far right to oppress minorities and return America to the Wild West. Most don’t talk this way, but some do . . . and we all may, at one time or another.
But I think that if you let yourself have some historical perspective you’ll see that both of these things are the results of insistence on excesses, (and by excess I mean politically immoderate positions — whether ultimately right or wrong), that eventually provoked a backlash resulting in what you see now. The excess of the Gilded Age produce social welfare legislation and the New Deal. Excesses in gun control and the entitlement welfare of the Great Society result in Heller and liberalization of gun rights and the Reagan Revolution. Or, if you prefer, substitute the word “enable” for the words “produce” and “result” and the previous sentences. There are plenty of other examples. To start you thinking, consider the taxes, investment banking regulation, suffrage, immigration, and even the origins of the Constitution and Hamilton versus the Antifederalists.
I could go on, but my thoughts are summed up pretty much as follows:
Immoderation begats immoderation. Or, phrased in the affirmative, excess begats excess.
In my view, moderates are often people less committed to the center, and more committed to refusing to allow their conception of the perfect to become the ally of their intellectual “enemy.” They value what they already have as well as what they think they can obtain, and recognize that more than just the perfect can be lost in the quest for perfection. They understand that not every dispute need not be a titanic struggle between good and evil.
Too often, when it comes to politics, we fall into what I’ve started to call “Lord of the Rings” syndrome (with all due respect — and much is due — to Mr. Tolkien), where every disagreement becomes an epic battle to the death. While we pick our battles with our children (at least we do when we’re smart) we’re less and less inclined to with our political enemies. And as a result, we end up fighting way too many Battles of the Backlash.
The Battle of the Backlash is the fight that you provoke by insisting on getting it all, whether all at once, or incrementally . . . .
Sometimes you’ll win, and sometimes you’ll lose the epic struggle.
But be assured that you’ll fight the Battle of the Backlash whenever you insist that everyone join you on your end of the political spectrum, because, dang it, you’re 100 percent right and they’re only willing to admit that your 90 percent right.
And just look at the cost (assuming it’s even possible) of recovering what you may have lost once it’s gone!
In politics every small struggle has connections to, and overtones of, a battles over fundamental principles. But they don’t (or shouldn’t) always end in the same place. In my opinion, the more often you fight small struggles battles as though they were epic battles, the less effective you’re going to be when a really fundamental dispute comes along.
Now, lest you think that I haven’t considered the other side, I’ll acknowledge that the dangers of moderation are as evident as its benefits. You can certainly fall into the trap of believing that nothing is worth really fighting for and compromise yourself to moral relativism. You can start getting a skewed view of the political landscape when you start seeing everything through the lens of moderation — i.e., they lost because they were too extreme; they won because they were reasonable.
I’m not suggesting that my view of moderation is the perfect lens through which to view the world and evaluate political outcomes. I’m not suggesting it’s necessarily the philosophy for all seasons. But it’s something I think about quite a bit, and I believe it’s worth thinking about the next time you’re gearing up for political battle. At the very least, it’s something you should consider the next time you’re tempted to deride those squishy moderates.
I’d love your thoughts!