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A Glimmer of Hope for Moderation?
Movement Start Small #29
Everyone claims to be tired of extremists. If only common sense moderates could return to power we could make some progress, goes the thinking.
True moderation is a process in politics, a way to get to answers like science is a method to gain knowledge. Moderates don’t just split the difference, they embrace nuance and shades of gray in the face of complexity. Their answers might shift back and forth from partisan boxes and change over time, but their views, once formed, are anything but apathetic. “Strong opinions, loosely held” could be their mantra. Or, my favorite version, from Churchill, “it’s better to be right than consistent.”
The political scientist Aurelian Creitu outlines several critical principles to truly being a moderate. It’s a high bar and surely precludes the knee jerk partisan loyalty we see so much of today.
Moderates think politically not ideologically. Extremists don’t give an inch. The slippery slope makes compromise too dangerous. The principles of ideology require rigidity. Think about the issue you care most about (taxes? guns? abortion? climate?). Now think about the time someone on your side compromised (e.g. Manchin on the left, Romney on the right). Did it piss you off? You might not be a moderate. Directional progress is a win to a moderate. As Reagan said, compromise is the “oil that lubricates the machinery of progress.”
Moderates don’t believe in one perfect path. Any big issue is complicated. But, most debates are framed by extremists and partisans as a simple choice. Choose a side. Get on board. Nothing hard is that easy. The path to success is debate, trial and error and, eventually, course correction. Trade-offs always exist. The sin is not error, but failure to keep learning and own up to inevitable mistakes. Humility is at the core of moderation. Have you changed your mind recently on a big issue?
Moderates don’t believe in good and evil framing. Moderates debate issues directly. They resist the temptation to label and smear their opponent. Implying intent is not dealing with an argument but trying to silence. Moderates avoid language that elevates their own view as righteous or demonizes their opposition’s as immoral. Do you think of the other side as evil? Are you consistently on the “right side of history”?
Moderates are committed to pluralism. Moderates don’t seek unity. A liberal society is one where many views coexist and battle towards progress. Even good ideas can be taken too far, so naysayers are needed to keep checks in place. Complex problems need traditional and contrarian ideas and a way to try many of them until we get real progress. Does wide open speech - even hearing things you hate - seem dated to you?
Moderates have the wisdom to know when not to be moderate. Some situations demand stubborn adherence to rigid positions. Moderates know certain principles must be defended at all costs, but these occasions are infrequent. Defending freedom of speech is an example where moderates would draw strict lines to ensure open debate - a core ideal of moderation. War crimes, election tampering, overt racism and other obvious ills are not good times for nuance. Having strong principles does not disqualify you as a moderate, but the less timeless the ideal, the less confident the moderate will be in rigid views.
It’s hard to even think of many public moderates these days. Most are in the shadows or irrelevant. Traditional media has fragmented to please its chosen (read: partisan) audience. And, the extreme politicians get the air time. AOC, MTG…the more controversial, the better the ratings.
But, voters seem to be asking for more nuance as they abandon firm party affiliation:
And, some voices are emerging from the shadows to meet their needs. My current favorite moderate is the political commentator Ruy Teixeira. A die hard Democrat, Ruy wrote a book in the 2000s outlining how demography would cement the Democratic majority. Well today, he admits he was wrong and chides the party for squandering their opportunity. He remains loyal but is dismayed by the left’s embrace of identity politics at the expense of working class issues. His excellent three point plan to fix the left includes: moving to the center on cultural issues, promoting an opportunity oriented abundance agenda and re-embracing a liberal national identity. Ruy joined AEI, the center-right think tank. But, he is still a proud Democrat. All signs of a true moderate.
You likely have never heard of Ruy. Finding moderate voices takes extra effort but they are emerging and getting a wider audience. Moderate voices from the left include Robert Wright, Matt Yglesias and Noah Smith. On the right Andrew Sullivan, Jonah Goldberg and Bari Weiss are a few names worth reading.
The economist Russ Roberts recently claimed, “Most people don’t really care about the truth. Most care about comfort, about consuming views that make us feel good about ourselves and better than other people.” Sadly, I think he is mostly right. Validating our priors is the easier more satisfying path. I am guilty too. But, like eating candy, it is making us sick.
The emerging moderates, on the other hand, are obsessed with finding the ground truth - even when it upsets their political leanings or previous positions. They are a small, but growing group. I think they represent a silent majority in a society trying, and mostly failing, to navigate a new information and political landscape (the “digital tsunami” as Martin Gurri calls it). Hopefully their voices will grow as we find our way in the internet age, and their moderate ideals will return to public life.
If you piss off the extreme right and left, you might be a moderate. The podcast about the political roller coaster of the world’s all time best selling author is a must listen: The Witch Trials of JK Rowling.
Institutions like the NY Times play a vital role in the media landscape. We need their reporting might. But most major media institutions have lost their way as they aim to please their increasingly balkanized audiences. It’s easy for the right to complain about the Times, but its biggest critic today is socialist Batya Ungar-Sargon who feels they have betrayed the working class for the identitarian obsessions of the wealthy, educated left. She makes a strong case. And recently points out some emerging signs of hope.
Jonah Goldberg consistently defends disagreement over unity. “Simply put, democracy doesn’t work at scale unless you add a competitive element. You need at least one out-group to offer an alternative vision of how to run things. It’s the job of Party A to point out the mistakes of Party B and vice versa.”
The history of art in 1 minute: