Why America Needs Moderates

The health of our democracy depends on preserving anti-extremism and a sense of humility—both traits that political moderates possess

Moderates need a role in American politics in order to ensure the healthy functioning of our political system. Image Credit: Robin Olimb/Getty Images

In today’s deeply polarized political world, there seems to be little room for anything but so-called true believers. As the Republican nomination begins to take shape, it is Donald Trump versus candidates who essentially agree with much of what he says—that “wokeness” is ruining America, that schools and corporations and media are in cahoots with liberal Democrats, etc. No seriously moderate candidate, like former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, has thrown their hat in the ring, and even if one did, their likelihood of winning the nomination would be dead in the water. While things might not be quite as dire for moderates on the Democratic side, there is still a strong ideological commitment for a more left-wing agenda—huge amounts of spending, the furthering of gay and transgender rights, etc.

And within both major parties, there is an intense tribalism that sees the other side as fundamentally unacceptable. At least in front of TV cameras, extreme Republicans such as Louie Gohmert and Marjorie Taylor Greene say that Democrats are essentially traitors. Although extremism on the right is more pronounced, some on the left—Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez come to mind—frequently paint all Republicans as racists and xenophobes. This kind of rhetoric weakens the ability to compromise and does little to foster dialogue.

In times past, now would be the time for the moderates to step forward and seek ways to modify the parties’ approaches and to seek to lower the temperature between the parties. But where are the moderates? Do they exist? Should we be worried about what the seemingly lack of moderates means for the future of our politics?

We should: Democracy needs moderates. Moderates are not only important for the role they play in deciding close elections, but because their positions are useful and virtuous. “Moderate” is not some constantly shifting position between two more extreme and authentic positions: Rather, it sees a distinction between politics as a religion—as a salvation—and politics as a way to accommodate a diversity of opinion that still recognizes the greater good of the community. At its heart, moderation is absolutely necessary for a republican democracy—and essential to maintaining a viable constitutional order in America.

Who Are the Moderates?

For a group that stays away from political extremes, moderates sure get a lot of flack. They’re subject to several different charges: They’re wishy-washy. They don’t truly believe in anything. They’re inauthentic. They put off difficult problems, kicking the proverbial can down the road. They’re RINOs (or DINOs). Even the many who worry about our partisan, divided world seem to feel no affection for moderates.

While I think these attacks are unfair, I do partially understand where they’re coming from: It is hard to categorize moderates. Are they centrists who live in the middle of a right-left political spectrum? Are they independents who feel no partisan identity? It’s difficult to say exactly, though a more focused picture of who moderates really are may be emerging. One recent article in the American Political Science Review suggests that moderates may be more complicated and less politically ignorant than previously thought. A survey of moderates found this group to be politically knowledgeable and willing to switch party voting for coherent reasons centered on candidate quality. Whereas true independents are often ignorant of politics, people with consistently moderate political views have significant political knowledge and have predictable ways of approaching the political world and making political decisions.

So what do moderates believe?

They’re opposed to extremism. For one, they are against “extremism”—the belief that the political world must be transformed in a complete and new way. These days, rhetoric coming from America’s far left and far right is united in one way: Both sides maintain that the current situation is simply intolerably wrong, and a new order must be imposed.  The left is pushing an expanded role for the state in healthcare and wealth redistribution, as well as an embrace of new ideas regarding gender and personal identity. On the right, these efforts are causing a tremendous panic, with severe reactions to even a hint of reform.

Their humility exceeds their certainty. To the far right and far left, the “new world” they seek is not just better in some material ways—it is more just, fair and moral. To create a just and moral world does not allow for compromise. Those on the political extremes are certain that pursuing that world is absolutely the correct approach: They possess an almost religious belief in that radically new world that is waiting to be born.

But moderates are a different animal. Moderates believe that moderation requires a fundamental sense of humility, that we are unsure what course of action is best. They accept that politics is not about salvation, but about marginal improvements—attempting either to improve things for the better or to lessen the chances that bad things will happen. And in terms of rhetoric, moderates believe in toning down any talk that the opposition is always wrong, let alone evil.

In short, moderates work to puncture the kind of ideological groupthink that can occur when many people who are politically certain come together. They’re clearly not ditherers who believe in nothing. Instead, they approach politics and policy with a sense of humility about accepting the future is unknown and a belief that they should encounter the world with respect for the possibility of error.

I Don’t Go to Extremes

Moderates’ dual commitment to anti-extremism and humility are absolutely vital to the healthy functioning of America’s political system. Why is that? A party system in a democracy requires a commitment to the great whole—to the idea that the survival of our political system matters more than the victory of one’s desired policy prescriptions.

And when you believe that maintaining the system is most important, compromising on issues is central. It reminds me of that famous line from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address: “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists.” Jefferson meant that we are all part of the American project. We need to recall that parties, as understood by historians and political scientists, are not simply vehicles for uncompromising ideologies. Yes, ideology is important; but that goes hand in hand with, and is not superior to, the party as a vehicle for people to work together to gain power. We can’t retreat to our own corners and expect a functional system.

A liberal, democratic society assumes individual plural ends, but it also insists that out of these competing goals, a unity can be developed. Strict ideologues are bound to find this unsatisfying: They want their party and their views to triumph. And if that fails, they are prone to look for ways to wipe out their political opponents—or to exit the political process altogether. But the American system of federalism and separation of powers is bound to constantly divide up control of the political world. Although there are some eras in which one party and one view dominated, this rarely lasts. Even arguably the clearest example of one-party domination—the Democrats under FDR—was one of constant compromise between disparate ideological wings of the Democratic Party. And by the end of the 1930s, Republicans were back to being part of many political debates.

Parties need each other in order for the system to work, and their recognition of each other as legitimate holders of power is absolutely essential to the health of democracy. This is, of course, tricky to maintain. Fervent beliefs and intense conflicts on values can undermine the notion of the shared common good that is the foundation of robust yet respectful partisan conflict. There isn’t much long-term hope if the results of elections are constantly questioned: A healthy democracy must rest on a belief that, for all its faults, the system itself can work, that election results can be trusted and that each side has some fundamental respect for the other side.

This is why moderates are so important—as their very name indicates, they have a moderating voice in elections. They’re not prone to demonizing others. Furthermore, many moderates possess a mix of liberal and conservative views. But that very mix, since it disconnects them from the intense views of liberals and conservatives in the two parties, are bound to make them suspicious of fierce party ideologies. They’re the glue holding together a party system that the party extremes are often trying to pull apart.

Lincoln the Moderate

Does this mean that moderates are incapable of strong views? Are they just seeking to maintain a kind of fuzzy status quo? It’s possible, but it’s not the only possibility: Indeed, some moderates have very solid viewpoints. Their moderation comes, rather, in the methods of pursuing their policy goals. Think Abraham Lincoln: When he was nominated as a Republican presidential candidate in 1860, he was perceived as a moderate on the slavery question. But what did that mean? He definitely thought that slavery cannot go on—it had to end. Yet he was open to compromise on how that happened.

Moderate. Abraham Lincoln’s principled moderation during the Civil War helped to keep the country together. Image Credit: Keith Lance/Getty Images

To end slavery, Lincoln maintained that the nation could not break apart and that eventually the entire country must become free. To his more strident opponents in the Republican Party, his views were too cautious. But Lincoln never forgot the ultimate goal, and he always worked to move toward that goal, if not always directly. Furthermore, as his second inaugural made clear, the greater good required a recognition of need to integrate everyone—Southerners included—back into one united country. This is the Lincoln of “with malice toward none, with charity for all”: There would be no one left behind, as it were.

Lincoln as a moderate should belie that idea that moderates are essentially complacent—that politics is only about managing things. One can be moderate and still have strong moral views. But those strong moral views are subject to realistic appraisal of the political world and a keen awareness of the complexity of politics. After all, Lincoln may have urged no malice, but he also made clear, that great costs would be borne by the American people:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln’s principled moderation helped to keep the country together when separation was a real possibility. While the costs were enormous, Lincoln never forgot the whole from which all sides sprung. Southerners were wrong to defend slavery, but they were still brethren. But what would we do if we faced such threats to our country’s survival today—would we be doomed? Of course, as alarming as our political times are today, I think it would be a bit dramatic to compare them to the 1860s. But if we indeed need another Lincoln today, we may be asking the political gods for too much.

Is There a Future for Moderates?

Okay, so we know who moderates are, and we know how essential the role they play is. But conventional wisdom tells us that moderates are nonexistent in this day and age. If that’s true, we should definitely be concerned about the future of our democracy. Well, fortunately, the conventional wisdom here is wrong: Moderates are still out there, and in pretty strong numbers too.

Now, there has been a marked decline in moderates among elected officials, activists and elites more generally. Why is that the case? There are two major reasons. First, though it took decades, the parties have sorted themselves out ideologically. For much of American history and up through the 1970s, the Republican and Democratic parties were ideologically mixed, with a fair amount of overlap. There really were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. You could count on northeast Republicans to be pro-civil rights and willing to work with Democrats in making the welfare state work. Southern Democrats were staunchly opposed to civil rights and had a general hostility to changes in our culture. But given changes in the electoral process, we now have what political scientists of the 1950s always wanted—a liberal/left party and a conservative/right party. But in finally reaching that goal, moderate elected officials got squeezed out.

The second and more difficult to quantify issue is the rise of a media ecosystem that rewards conflict, partisanship and more distinct, nonmoderate political positions. Fox News and MSNBC have carved out defined positions along the political spectrum, with Fox being particularly important on the political right. With a focus on political opinion, their evening shows emphasize guests and hosts who confirm strong partisan views. If you were to watch Fox News alone, you would have little understanding of the legal problems Donald Trump currently faces. But if you only watch MSNBC, you might be surprised that people talk about anything else.

As a result of these two reasons—ideological sorting and a contentious media environment—it’s difficult today for a moderate candidate to even make it through the primary process, let alone make it to political office. Yet among voters—among common citizens—moderates’ ranks remain strong. A recent Gallup poll showed that a plurality of voters identify as moderates.

In a time when gridlock seems to dominate, moderates are the ones leading the way in seeking compromise to move the political agenda forward. We can avoid trying to solve political problems for a while, but if at some point we don’t address them, people grow restless, indifferent and possibly even violent toward politics. If one believes in democracy, all of those paths are fraught with danger. There are examples of people in politics who might lead the way forward to a new embrace of moderates. In the Senate, Republican Lisa Murkowski still reminds us of that bygone era of elected GOP officials who did not demonize Democrats and often worked to find solutions—even an acceptable middle ground. And Congressmen Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Jeff Jackson of North Carolina are among the few examples who offer hope for people who appreciate the greater whole of which we are all a part. They remind us that politicians can hold strong beliefs but balance that with the grace to realize that politics is not a death sport.

In the end, as simple as it sounds, we must remember we are Americans before we are Democrats or Republicans. Democracy requires us to accept that we share our fates with others as equals. This sense of equality means humbly recognizing that one’s political opponents might sometimes be right. Moderates are the current political paragon for this sense, and the health of our democracy depends on their continuing to set such an example.

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