Defining Moderation

New York Times columnist David Brooks is given to periodic meditations triggered by the political environment; recently, he mused at some length over “what moderates believe.” 

I’m not ready to endorse Brooks’ entire definition, which is a bit too formulaic and pietistic for my tastes, but I do think that one sentence describes the fundamental difference between “wingers” and moderates:

Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.

I would probably phrase this differently, but I agree that moderation is an approach, an attitude, an openness to complexity rather than a set of rigid beliefs. A moderate is someone who recognizes the increasing ambiguities of modern life, someone who can make peace with a world where there is less black and white and more shades of gray without feeling disoriented or panicky.

Moderates use terms like “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Moderates reject justifications for the use of violence in service of ideology; they recognize that whether it is the Nazis or the Antifa who oppose them, a resort to the use of force places zealots outside the norms of acceptable political discourse, undermining both the rule of law and fundamental American principles.

The True Believers of both the Right and Left are the enemies of functioning government. These are the judgmental, “my way or the highway” purists who prefer losing to taking half a loaf, who don’t understand that sustainable progress is almost always incremental, who have learned nothing from the history of revolutions.

The GOP has pretty much rid itself of its moderates–it has actually made “moderate” a dirty word– and the party’s current inability to govern despite controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency is a direct result of its radicalization. Once-thoughtful elected officials now pander to the party’s rabid base in order to avoid being primaried–and it’s hard not to wonder if and when they’ll regret trading their souls and the tattered remnants of their integrity for another term in office.

For their part, the Democratic Party’s purists are responsible for that party’s recurring “circular firing squads.” Here in Indiana, several have announced that they won’t support incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly because he is “insufficiently progressive.” Their defection is likely to give Indiana a Republican zealot in his place–hardly an improvement, but evidently satisfying to those for whom ideological purity is more important than retaking the Senate. For the record, I am considerably more progressive than Donnelly, but he will vote against the upcoming attempts to eviscerate the social safety net in order to give huge tax cuts to the 1%, and every Republican running to replace him will enthusiastically vote for those measures. Should the Democrats retake the Senate (something they probably cannot do if Donnelly loses), Donnelly will also be a vote to replace Mitch McConnell–that alone is reason enough to support him.

Politics has been called “the art of the possible.” Moderates acknowledge that reality, and are willing to take something less than perfection if that “something less” is an improvement over the alternative.

Come to think of it, perhaps “moderate” simply means “adult.”


  1. Excellent summation and conclusion.

    In my mindset, “moderation” is a basic – not full – descriptive word for Independent party and voters. I was an Independent for many years, from 1958 to 2000, followed candidates of both parties before reaching conclusions, making decisions and heading to the polls to vote. Didn’t always reach the correct or the best conclusion but was “adult” enough to try to see both sides.

    Probably why I related to Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaign foundations. Before some of you begin screaming; yes, they did reach different conclusions on some issues…but they were being “adult” and “independent” in seeking solutions to our problems by keeping open minds. President Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope” is what hooked me about the man and his campaign and why I supported Bernie in 2016. They both maintain the “audacity of hope” that both parties can and will AGAIN sit at the bargaining table and seek solutions to the problems this nation is facing. This takes open minds, “independent” and “adult” LISTENING and thinking before making final decisions. This is moderation.

    The Democratic party alone cannot resolve the Trump conditions tearing us apart at this time; the Republican party must join the Democratic party to either find a way to control Trump or remove the “deconstruction” tactics he is using to destroy all but the 1% of this country as he brings us daily closer and closer to nuclear war…with somebody, he doesn’t really care who. That is why he set off his personal fireworks displays in Syria and Afghanistan…to prove he can! And he has those code numbers to set off our nuclear power, with no document to prevent him from making this decision alone; this was reported by a former high level Defense official after his inauguration. I see no moderation in requiring the approval of Congress to declare a war but give one man the power to set off total nuclear destruction.

  2. “it’s hard not to wonder if and when they’ll regret trading their souls and the tattered remnants of their integrity for another term in office” – it appears that most of them quickly get drunk on the power they are given and will do whatever they have to to maintain that power.

    Sheila – I think you just gave the Dem party their fighting words that can get people on both sides to pay attention and VOTE in the upcoming elections.

    “For the record, I am considerably more progressive than Donnelly, but he will vote against the upcoming attempts to eviscerate the social safety net in order to give huge tax cuts to the 1%, and every Republican running to replace him will enthusiastically vote for those measures.”

    We all need to hammer away at what everyone could lose if more Rs are elected!

  3. The true left wing purists have taken a page from the right wing play book: “The only way to push your party right is to not compromise.” Unfortunately the leftists don’t understand that without the financial backing like the right has from the Koch brothers and crew they are little more than noisy irritants. They might be able to push the democratic party slightly to the left but they will never be as effective as the right wingers.

  4. I haven’t really changed my political views much in 30 years (an Andy Jacobs Democrat if you remember he and his dog “C5”) but I am far more vocal about what they are now that I’m retired (with no worries about how my political views might affect my pocketbook or employment status). Nevertheless, I find myself being called a socialist or communist by the folks who have moved so far to the right that moderation is perceived as radical in the modern era. It is a fact, however, that moderates are pretty much democratic socialists, aligned more with Western European thinking (the home countries of their ancestors – who knew!?).

    What is NOT known is what moderates really stand for in terms of social change if they are largely incrementalists. Will the stark economic inequalities in our society fix themselves by tinkering with our federal tax code? How about elimination of oppressive voter suppression laws. Is that gray enough that we should be happy to have one voting center added back after 10 have been eliminated? Or take health care – we’re OK with a 10% uninsured rate? It’s better than 17%, right? Or how about the 16 year old war in Afghanistan? 3,000 more troops OK? There are so many issues demanding substantive policy shifts that the term moderation may have simply become a quaint historic reference to the days of Nelson and Happy Rockefeller.

    What moderates cannot afford to be are quiet statists. That’s what gotten us in this position in the first place – there are just WAY too many people who are happy to sit on the sidelines and eschew “politics” in any form, other than showing up to get their “I Voted” sticker once every two or four years. My wife and I were at a neighborhood dinner a couple of years ago with people we consider good friends and where politics is rarely an acceptable topic of discussion. Then out of the blue one of the guests simply declared loudly enough for everyone to hear: “that Obama….he’s the WORST President in history!”. Well, I took the bait and tried to engage her in what I thought would be a hearty debate but soon devolved anything but. I soon concluded that her position was based on little more than bald-face racism. And I told her that. Probably a big mistake as it ended our friendship, but I’ve since rationalized that I just don’t want friends like that, even if they usually hide their offensive views and beliefs in polite society.

    There are millions of conversations and interactions like this going on in our country….a kind of Big Sort. And while this MAY not be healthy in the short run, I would assert (albeit self-servingly) that it’s the ONLY WAY OUT of this mess. The problem is that moderates have to shed their milquetoast ways and get way more actively and forcefully involved in the political process, making it known that their policy views and values are what built this country and can build its future as well.

  5. Amen!


    I still hold out hope because it seems that our Secretary of Defense and our military leaders remember the history lesson of Nuremburg. They are not just following orders. They are standing up for principle. Neither the Secretary, nor the Joint Chiefs can be considered liberals and we could probably count on one hand the number of Democrats they have voted for in all of their lives, but they all stood against the transgender ban and they will work to care for those who are already in the service. Mattis’s speech to his troops, telling them to hold strong until the US gets back to caring for one another was inspirational.

  6. Nancy,

    DOWN DEEP the only thing the Republican majority believes in is White Supremacy. If you want to MODERATE them, you have to convince enough of them that White Supremacy is a road to a catastrophic, racial CIVIL WAR.

    Anything less is just a waste of time and energy.

  7. Sheila, thank you for a reminder that we progressives need to be as supportive of less than ideal candidates because of the need to defeat the Republicans in 2018. I often rail against Sen. Donnelly and others, but I have to remember one important thing. In the House, a member’s most important vote is the vote for Speaker. In the Senate, a member’s most important decision is the party to caucus with.

    I hope today’s blog post gets circulated widely on web sites like Daily Kos and others. The message needs to be heard.

  8. “Pietistic”! I love it. As a fellow wordsmith, this one ranks near the top…at least for me. Our song should be: “Me and my Thesaurus”.

  9. Sorry, but the political spectrum in this country assumes democracy. We don’t have a democracy and we don’t have a ‘representative republic’.

    You define a moderate as: “an openness to complexity rather than a set of rigid beliefs.”

    I would say they are misinformed and in denial.

    Free market capitalism places profits above people in ALL things. There are NO exceptions.

    Look at our healthcare system. We pay more and get less than any other industrialized nation. They don’t work within the community to prevent diseases – they fill beds to make profits. If 80% of all disease can be prevented, why isn’t our health care system working to prevent diseases?

    The oligarchs have already identified public education as the next privatization effort. I know moderate teachers who can’t believe what happened to their teaching profession even though there is a 30-year history of Neoliberalism in the USA – privatization of public assets.

    Locally, as the state took over the finances of our school district, teachers blame “the union” or “politicians” or the “government”. Those in the union blame “administrators”.

    How can you possibly define “left-moderate-right” when so many Americans have no clue?

    We have a Gannett owned newspaper in this community. They own the USA Today.

    So, how is it that our smartest people (teachers) are so misinformed as to our problems?

    If you cannot properly identify the problem, you can’t propose a solution.

  10. Can one be an ideological purist but distinguish between substance and procedure in winning elections? Can we distinguish between politics and our response as to how best to advance our own interests and those of the community and country? Yes, so far. I am a purist in my own mind but am willing to vote for those who do not measure up to my standards only because a half loaf is better than none. I am familiar with Donnelly’s votes on Lilly and tax matters but I am also aware of his votes with the Democratic caucus, which I approve, so I like many compromise my own view of somewhat left of center political views with the reality of winning elections, and especially in a right wing state like Indiana. I have to remember that Donnelly first has to get a seat at the table, after which we Democrats can try to influence his vote on issues we care
    about, including Big Pharma and tax cuts issues.
    Ancillary note – I agree with Marv that a civil war is a possibility but I think such an unlikely outcome will be fought over economics rather than race, though race and economics converge as reputable studies show how we continue to discriminate on wage levels based on race, and especially on black women. Piketty, among other economists, has predicted that the present race to the bottom in wages could result in further degradation of democracy and possible civil commotion or worse. Marv is leading the pack, so to speak, but I think (and hope) his predictions are premature, as I am sure he does.

  11. We NOW have the same type of problems the Germans had in the 30’s, but only worse. However, we can’t understand that, since we’re much better, than they were, in “burying our heads in the sand.”

    Consequently, Donald Trump is making Adolph Hitler look like a genius.

  12. It seems to me that the spectrum of humanity lays out pretty accurately on a scale of collaborative-competitive with moderation a feature of collaboration. It’s how things get done, how ultimately progress is made.

    It used to be that we could assume that any successful politician knew and practiced at the collaborative end even though at some level the need to win motivated him or her.

    In my career it became obvious to me that acting collaboratively was a required persona that defined how much individuals managed to accomplish in a complex environment of various expertises, approaches and technologies. There was no one thing that solved problems and pursued opportunities. Everything had to be considered and evaluated and it was balance and communication that uncovered, sometimes at the expense of time, the optimum solution.

    My way or the highway typically ended progress. I guess it still does.

  13. Here is a proposed letter to Senator Donnelly, now an open letter which was never sent to him:

    DONNELLY: “As a pro-life Senator, I am committed to protecting the sanctity of life, and I have consistently supported legislation that PROHIBITS taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortions. This restriction, commonly known as the Hyde Amendment, allows for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.”

    Senator, I believe everyone is pro-life, NOT pro-death. It’s the quality of life that MUST be protected by dealing with poverty and rumors of war. I hope you will be committed to life when you are asked to vote on a declaration of the war the embers of which are being stoked now by fascistic narcissism in the administration.

    DONNELLY: “I also believe we must protect women’s access to primary and preventive health care. That is why I support funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act (PHSA, P.L. 78-410). Title X grants are used to provide breast and cervical cancer screenings, as well as sexually transmitted disease and HIV prevention education, counseling, and testing. I have also voted to ensure women have access to contraception and preventive care, and that women are not charged more than men for health insurance.”

    Senator, I believe your statement means you would legislate unfairly against freedom of choice for a poor women and girls and would result in women and girls risking unlawful and dangerous pregnancy terminations that could result in injury and death. The wealthy need not worry; THEY can afford and do BUY “morning after” medication and deluxe abortion services.

    Then I copied and pasted this from the Democrat Party Platform:

    PLATFORM: “We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured. We believe that reproductive health is core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing. We will continue to stand up to Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers, which provide critical health services to millions of people.”

    The Straight Democrat vote I cast included your candidacy and was based on the Party Platform as I did not have your views. I need to know if you have amended your conclusions on this point.

    It is clear to me that we Democrats, especially now is this insane political climate, should courageously SUPPORT the above statement in the Democrat Platform that is rational, pro-women’s health, pro-choice, pro-freedom and pro-quality of life. I OPPOSE the ploy of legislating morality.

    Please let me know if you will rethink your statement pasted above and how your opinion, which is contradicts the Democrat Party Platform statement might be published in the future to ensure support by Democrats.

  14. Gerald,

    My predictions are not premature, but unavoidable. They’re based on 50 years of constant TRACKING and SUCCESSFUL INTERVENTION. The Republican Party’s “end game” is NOW UNAVOIDABLE without a COUNTERVAILING ORGANIZED MOVEMENT to disrupt the trend, or better the TRACK.

  15. I struggle think of what Senator Joe Donnelly has accomplished, let alone articulated, during his term. OMG, good comments. Todd, we do have a ‘representative republic’. It is just that it only represents the 1% and big corporations.

    Donnelly is running on the “at least I am not Republican Platform”.

    Sen. Kamala Harris is the first Democrat to announce she’ll co-sponsor Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care bill when it’s introduced in September. I would fall off my chair if Senator Joe Donnelly signs up to be a Co-Sponsor.

  16. G. K. Chesterton wrote the following on compromise: “Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.” Enjoy your perspectives (likely because I almost always agree with your point of view).

  17. I agree. We must be adults and support moderate candidates such as Joe Donnelly. It doesn’t matter what Donnelly supports,brand loyalty is all that matters. I congratulate the Democrats for creating the vacuum whereby a threat to the social safety net from Republicans was made possible. If Democrats had made genuine efforts to protect such safety nets,there would be no effective threats from Republicans today. Luckily for the rubes,brand loyalty is all that matters. Donnelly supports the war efforts and I agree. There is nothing better for the environment than more war. Plus,Donnelly doesn’t support universal healthcare–and that is good. Only extremist lefties want the US to join the modern industrialized world and to offer such an amenity. Besides, universal healthcare would bankrupt insurance executives and that would be sad. #TheLivesofInsuranceExecutivesMatter!! What would those executives do with their lives? Play golf 24/7? Spend an inordinate amount of time with the mistress? That would be so cruel.

    I agree with Hillary,America is already GREAT! We don’t need universal healthcare. We have the BEST healthcare system in the world if you’re a member of the donor-class–and that is what is most important. Their lives matter!! They are job creators,educated and earn the most dollars. They are entitled to buy the executive,judicial and representative branches of government. What’s the point of earning lots of money if you can’t have a politician or two in your pocket? Those earning the most monies should be those that make public policy; . i.e. Those in control of IPS should be from Hamilton and Boone Counties. That’s how the world SHOULD work!

    Moreover, I will blindly support Donnelly because half a loaf is much better than an entire loaf! That is the mantra of the DNC !! As Democrats,we must always capitulate and acquiesce to the monied interests and move more toward the right! We have done so for 40+ years. Being a moderate has brought us here today! Moderation works! We must not waste time wanting or demanding universal healthcare. We should just be satisfied with accomplishing very little. We must work toward more worthwhile goals….More R-E-A-L-I-S-T-I-C GOALS. Much is wrong with the country and we are in more military adventures and for much longer than ever before…Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq..But….We now have transgender bathrooms!! That is a real accomplishment! America IS great!

  18. I would moderate your moderate definition by adding that, in my view, moderates are pragmatic. It seems to me that moderates try to solve the problems that exist. This does not sound sexy and alluring. I think I like the progressive category better. I like the connotation of moving forward, trying to see around corners, with the aid of science, to head off unanticipated outcomes, while pragmatically solving problems today.

    I have one quibble. A small one, but mine own. It is the phrase, “the increasing ambiguities of modern life”. I hear this idea often, and I always think, life was always ambiguous, difficult, tenuous. It is especially hard for a species than can consciously imagine ideals, and measure where we fall short. Life appears more ambiguous and challenging now to us, because we don’t know how the story ends. But back then, no one knew how the story ended either. Some of our challenges are different: nukes, almost 8 billion of us, running out of antibiotics. Oh wait, before antibiotics people died right and left from infections, often at early ages. There are famines, epidemics, wars, dictators, floods, fires, slavery, discrimination, lawlessness, violence, corruption, now and then – in varying proportions. Also kindness, strength, new tools, some good laws, resilience, and some rather good ideals. It isn’t worse now than it has been at many times in history, it’s just that we are the ones facing it now. It’s a quibble. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that for our ancestors, life was no easier, in some ways, or harder, in some ways, than today. They stuck it out and kept doing their best, and we can too.

  19. Joslyn – Well said. We only occupy time and space in limited fashion and must do what we can in such an environment as experience and judgment dictate. How we approach solutions to the socioeconomic problems of the day becomes almost as important as their solution, and even those best crafted are subject to shocks of war, pestilence and other economic externalities and unintended consequences that we put in place. Yours is a thoughtful look at yesterday, and while history is a guide to the future, it is not the future, being linear in design. Nonetheless, your piece is worth thoughtful consideration, so thanks.

  20. William claims what’s wrong with Republicans is that they have a majority in Congress and the Whitehouse.

    I think that’s what’s wrong with America.

  21. The problem is there is no effective alternative to Republicans. Democrats have become Republican-lite.

    The Democrats have become nothing more than the identity politics wing of the Republican Party.

    If it were not for the Monica Lewinsky scandal,Clinton was going to attack the safety net known as Social Security by privatizing it. Who needs history when unbridled loyalty to the DNC is demanded by the proprietor of this site and her lackeys?

    The professor and Pete want us to believe the Democrats will protect us from the evil authoritarians. a.k.a. Republicans…when that is ostensibly not even close to the truth.

  22. William,

    “The problem is there is no effective alternative to Republicans. Democrats have become Republican-lite.”

    That’s not the only problem, but it surely is a major one.

    Partisan politics in the U.S. is now like a tackle football game where one team [Republicans] is playing TACKLE and the other team [Democrats]only play TOUCH at best.

    What’s the reason? It’s simple. The Democratic Party is afraid to get their uniforms dirty. Who can blame them?

    It got way out of hand, when a former drum major, Bill Clinton, became President and instituted his TRIANGULATION [or white flag] strategy. We’ve been going down hill ever since then.

  23. William at 6:37am on 9/3.
    I admire your humorous sarcasm at 5:43pm on 9/1.
    In Indiana we have a self-styled Democrat U.S. Senator named Joe Donnelly I believe to be GOP-lite (probably needed to be to get elected).
    Suggested easy online reading:
    The DNC National Party Platform
    The RNC National Party Platform
    One outlines what it stands for; the other what it is against.
    I’m counting on White House scandalous ineptitude to change the Congressional profile late next year.

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