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On So-Called “Moderates”: We Have Been Vindicated!

July 9, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Moderate Politics Keanu

There comes a time in the lives an obscure writer when you get the chance to see, after taking an opinion on something, just how prescient you really were.

Words cannot describe how excited I was to see the following headline on Vox today: “Moderate Voters are a Myth.” Why was I so elated? Back in April of 2012, I wrote an article called “Is There Such a Thing as a True ‘Moderate’?” where I basically concluded that

if you sit people down and really press them on what they value in terms of public policy, none of those people you speak to will ever land squarely on the 50-yard line. They don’t have to land on the end-zones of course, but they will be at least one yard to the left or the right.

And in Ezra Klein’s article, he uses a study conducted by political scientist David Brookman to show how

the term “moderate” makes it sound like there’s one kind of moderate — which is where the idea emerges that there’s some silent moderate majority out there waiting for their chance to take back politics. But someone who believes in punitively taxing the rich and criminalizing homosexuality is not going to form a coalition with someone who believes in low taxes and gay marriage, even though both of these voters would look moderate on a survey.

The deeper point here is that the idea of the moderate middle is bullshit: it’s a rhetorical device meant to marginalize some policy positions at the expense of others. There’s no actual way to measure it, or consistent definition animating it, and it doesn’t spontaneously emerge in any of the data.

I have been vindicated! The term “moderate” really is totally bogus! I always knew Ezra secretly read my articles!

Ok ok, I know that’s probably not the case. And I realize that in some cases, the word moderate is legitimately useful and can imply someone’s willingness to compromise. As a description of temperament, it’s perfectly fine- but in the hands of the mainstream press, it can be counterproductive.

Still, it’s nice to know that an engineer of common-wisdom (at least among millenials) like Ezra Klein shares something with you, especially when it’s so obvious you become aghast at how much it’s ignored on a daily basis. It was also fun watching people get upset by my article on the “Moderate” sub-reddit back in 2012.

But my main contention dealt with how people conduct themselves in conversation or how they carry themselves from a political standpoint. What I hadn’t thought of at the time was something I began to realize later as President Obama entered his second term: many of the worst things about American politics and policy are sustained and lauded by these so-called “moderates.”

“When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want,” Broockman says. “Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”

That’s the problem with using a term that doesn’t describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. “Moderate” is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it’s become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It’s time to get rid of it.

Who supports our wasteful and destructive war on drugs? Moderates. Who actually wants to reform drug policy and the criminal justice system? Liberals and Tea Partiers. Who supports the worst excesses of the NSA and thinks Edward Snowden should go to jail under the 1917 Espionage Act? Moderates. Who thinks the NSA needs to be reformed and that Snowden should face a fair trial or even a pardon? Liberals and Tea Partiers. Who supports the idea of the War on Terror and the expansion of the military-industrial complex? Moderates. Who actually comes up with ideas to scale back the role of the United States to something more in-line with our core values and international law? Liberals and Tea Partiers.

“Oh Drew, there you go pontificating the usual bunch of libertarian crap, the two factions will side with one another on those issues?”

Are you so sure? After all, it was the Tea Party and the Progressives who supported the Amash Amendment last year to reign in the NSA, while “ImHeretoGetThingsDone” moderates like Diane Feinstein and Lindsay Graham rallied to the defense of the status quo. And it was just today that Politico reported Rand Paul (R-TN) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) had come together to draft legislation called the REDEEM act:

It encourages states to change policies so children are directed away from the adult criminal justice system; automatically expunges or seals — depending on their age — criminal records of juveniles who committed nonviolent crimes; and limits solitary confinement of children, except in rare circumstances.

The legislation also creates a path for adults with nonviolent offenses to seal their criminal records and restores food stamp and welfare benefits for low-level drug offenders who have served their sentences

There are many problems with our current criminal justice system, which we’ve written about before here at FSTA, and to see two senators stick their necks out on the issue is genuinely encouraging. After all, what good is any talk about rehabilitation or “correction” if we don’t allow for some sort of redemption?

Again, what principles would a “moderate” have to stand on in this case?

“Whatever’s best for the country, because I’m a real patriot, not like those extremists!”

But how do you define what’s best in this case? Wanting to keep families together (conservatives)? Social justice (progressives)? Preserving personal liberties (libertarians)? Or perhaps a mix of the three. But being a mix here does not suddenly make the term “moderate” appropriate, because by definition, anyone who disagrees can then be othered into extremism (hm, that would make a really good title for a crust-punk song).

And I definitely don’t mean to position this as a support piece for the major parties, or against political individualism and independence. Far from it. As Klein notes in his article: “Moderates, in other words, are just as likely as anyone else to hold extreme positions: it’s just that those positions don’t all line up on the left or the right.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2014 11:40 am

    Great column! Basically, the 2 political parties have a corporatist wing (most of their leadership and politicians and the lobbyists and wealthy donors who support them) and a populist wing (the ordinary citizens who feel the need to vote and thus must choose between the politicians of the 2 corporatist parties). The media calls the corporatist wing “moderate” and the populist wing “extreme.”

  2. July 11, 2014 12:23 pm

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