It Isn’t About Moderates and Progressives

Democrats are constantly arguing about whether the party should support moderate or progressive politicians. It’s an argument that illustrates Americans’ tendency to prefer nice, neat labels to the messiness of reality: most people hold a variety of positions that can’t all be neatly shoved in a drawer marked “liberal” “conservative” “socialist” and so forth.

Thinking people are hard to pigeonhole.

A paragraph from a column written for the Indianapolis Recorder by my SPEA colleague Marshawn Wolley  illuminates the real issue. It’s leadership.

Voters deserve officeholders who are willing to lead–mayors and governors and Presidents who are willing to stake out reasoned positions on issues (most of which are actually ideologically neutral), willing to explain their reasoning to the public, and willing to go to bat for them.

The context of Marshawn’s column was the upcoming mayoral election in Indianapolis, where a reasonably popular Democratic incumbent will run for re-election in a city that is reliably blue. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention.

Personally, I think the mayor’s popularity is deceptive, and perhaps even soft in the Black community, and our times do not favor political moderates. The mayor didn’t show up on mass transit, the IPS referendum and was late on living wages for city workers. Mass transit was the biggest policy issue that could impact social mobility in a generation. He didn’t lead here. IPS is not called Center Township Public Schools — it’s called “Indianapolis” Public Schools. When the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is approving charter schools they are happening in the IPS district. He was wrong to not weigh in on the referendum. While he eventually got around to supporting living wages, Black Democrats, who really need to speak out more, argued that a balanced budget couldn’t happen on the backs of workers. Each of these issues were rallying cries within the community and he missed them — bipartisanship and a balanced budget don’t drive people to polls.

I think Marshawn has confused a fear of staking out a leadership position (and thus becoming a target for criticism) with philosophical “moderation,” but the rest of his indictment is spot on.

Reluctance to exercise leadership is a liability, and not just within the Black community.

Another excellent example of this mayor’s allergy to getting “out front” of important issues involves the State DOT announcement earlier this year of its plans to “repair” the interstates that carve up Indianapolis’ downtown. The state’s plan would double down on ungainly remnants of a fifty-year-old bad decision that  impacts walkability and intrudes on five historic neighborhoods. A significant number of residents and businesses have come together to make the case for rethinking those highways; I’ve previously posted about the details of the “rethink” arguments.

Favoring a particular configuration for downtown interstates is not politically conservative, liberal, progressive or moderate.

The Mayor was finally persuaded to write a letter to the state’s DOT, supporting the ReThink plan, but has otherwise been invisible on the subject–just as he was invisible on mass transit and the IPS referendum.

It’s highly likely that political calculation drives this reluctance to engage; after all, when you take a stand, someone will disagree. Why take a chance of pissing people off when the political landscape looks advantageous–when the odds of re-election are in your favor?

On the other hand, that impulse to win office by “laying low” raises a question: why do politicians run for offices like mayor and governor if they don’t have a vision for improving their city or state? Why do they seek office if they aren’t interested in leading their communities in a particular direction? Do they view these offices merely as stepping-stones to something else?

Timidity isn’t the same thing as bipartisanship. It isn’t the same thing as moderation, either. Inaccurate labels just confuse the situation.


  1. I find it hard, very hard, to find a person of either bent – who truly represents the ‘progressive’ or the ‘moderate’. The situation is so caustic. Mud flies everywhere – (pardon me, but so does crap!)
    My assessment is that this is due to a couple of generations of separating the general public from civics and political education. We are a country that is attempting to speak out of 375 million mouths at the same time… and those who are in a position to make governmental change – aren’t listening. Where is real leadership? IMPEACH!! IMPEACH!!! yeah right – and we wind up with ‘pope pence’… when we need to clean the sewer out completely. I don’t see progress, I see us like a snowball flying into hell… unless, we find a way to define a way out of this that is in accord with re-establishing us as a nation of Laws.

  2. This lends more to the discussion of the antiquated political spectrum than leadership. There are lots of different types of leaders depending on the situation and the need.

    As for your weak-kneed Mayor, I suspect he is cowering to the monied interests who control Indianapolis. Nataha yesterday pinned the most relevant post which would certainly be relevant under this topic as well.

    I would offer my services to Gannett to be the journalist she speaks of but guess what? There is absolutely no way in hell they would hire me. It’s funny, an employee within our local Chamber once called what I do “activist journalism”. I explained to her that it was simply operating like the free press which was the original intent of our founders – serve the people – Fourth Branch of Government – the Fourth Estate.

    People today believe that what is read to them on the tele is the same as the free press. They even think Gannett owns the rights to the free press with the Indy Star.

    A real free press would shine some very uncomfortable truths on Indianapolis and Indiana. It would expose the corruption behind the facade. It would most likely expose the City’s democratic party more in line with the old GOP. In Washington, they are called Third Way Democrats.

    From Wiki: “Third Way’s funding also partially comes from philanthropies, foundations and personal donations.”

    I’m sorry, but if your think tank and policies are dictated by capitalists, you’re not a democrat! You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    And if you don’t think the Koch brothers don’t know how to manipulate democratic voters then your votes don’t really count.

    A free press would be allowed to explore these connections and report on them to the people so they can make informed decisions. But in places like Indy, the “media” is all part of the image committee. Uphold a positive image no matter what. If the press is a fraud, so is the city, so is the state, so is the country…

  3. I was not overly impressed with Mayor Hogsett’s campaign foundation and haven’t been impressed in the least with his performance in office but will vote for him again because he is (or probably will be) the Democratic nominee. I can understand why his popularity may be “soft” in the Black community because the killings have continued…and escalated. The lack of common sense gun laws in this state will continue to prevent a lessening of that situation. But those laws are not made at city level.

    I grew up in the era when mass transit was a primary transportation provider and the public school system the leading source of education. The population growth and the spreading out of City limits to the county line on all sides of downtown, with malls and big-box stores driving Mom-and-Pop businesses out of business changed our lived for us. We have been scrambling to keep up with the changes for decades and now, if you don’t have a vehicle, life is more difficult.

    “It Isn’t About Moderates And Progressives” It also isn’t about common sense, logic, humanitarianism and government “living within it’s means” as we are forced to do, and we can’t keep up with their decisions and changes. Government “of the people, by the people and for the people” appears to have perished as President Abraham Lincoln feared. There isn’t even a name or a title for who and what is currently squatting in our White House and Mayor Hogsett is but one of the lower level elected leaders trying to “maintain” equalibrium in this current Republican “trickle down” economy. Those in lower level positions of local government, such as the City-County Council, are not listening to the people and have no understanding of their – our – daily needs but will again seek our votes at the polls come election days.

    Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq is another publicity stunt filled with lies and deception; his phone call with that 7 year old girl trying to track Santa Clause is another national embarrassment which should never have been allowed to go public. Whether he – or you – believe in continuing the Santa Claus myth with your children; it was not his place to make that decision any more than it is his place to make military decisions of international importance. A decision which will effect many of us locally and personally when the obvious failure to rid Syria, et al, of ISIS becomes obvious; it is our sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who will forced into the war zones due to his decision. It is not a case of “Progressive or Moderate”; it is a life-or-death decision which was not his to make.

    Will electing Mayor Hogsett to a second term bring about progress in any of the areas Marshawn Wolly included in his column; we can only hope that given more time he can keep the Republicans at bay to find even partial viable solutions to any of the problems in this city.

    “Timidity isn’t the same thing as bipartisanship. It isn’t the same thing as moderation, either. Inaccurate labels just confuse the situation.”

    Oh, what would we give for another Mayor Bill Hudnut!!!

  4. People use these labels to demean others. They are used to avoid discussion on a specific issue, likely because the person has no well thought out opinion on the subject. You described it perfectly in a past column.

  5. Professor Wooley correctly points out the school system mainly, if not wholly, in the old city limits, is named IPS. He criticizes Hogsett for being late to the table on the referendum. 4 decades ago when IPS was forced by statistics to close schools, the IPS Board appointed a large committee of citizens to make recommendations. At one point when there was an impasse, a real estate entrepreneur said we should get Mayor Bill to provide the answer. He responded politely with the point the Board was elected to make those decisions, his was to lead the City. Having failed in that ploy, Mr. “Real Estate” called a rump session of Legislature officials, who, also declined, in favor of the elected body, the IPS Board. That process alone revealed the lack of knowledge of our civic and political system. It’s not just our present time that civic education fails us.

    The current threats we face, climate change and corporate capitalism, demand responses at all levels of government and from all sectors of society, from the far right to the far left. We all share the same planet and suffer the same ills of capitalism.

  6. It seems like a lifetime ago, but I recall writing a letter to Senator Lugar regarding his impending vote on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I challenged him to be what we needed, a leader, rather than a representative. The Senator voted the way his constituents wanted him to, abandoning the opportunity to lead on an issue that would soon turn in a vastly different direction.

    The thing that real leaders have that most politicians don’t is courage. That is truly a rare commodity.

  7. Peggy’s comment brought to mind Joe Donnelly. If ever there was a symbol for non-leadership it was that man. Six years in the Senate to put forth some ideas from the left and he squander his chance by staying in what he thought was the safe middle/right. He could have used that time to put forth arguments that might have pushed Indiana a bit into the twenty-first century. Instead he served only himself, and poorly at that.

  8. Sheila, I especially agree about the lack of meaning of the term “moderate.” Honestly, it is often used to mean a specific lack of leadership rather than a location on a political spectrum. Moderate and centrist are nor synonyms, although are used as such.

    For Democrats today, some people are drawn to explaining most “moderates” as triangulators of the Bill Clinton variety, shiftless politicians devoted to winning, to staying on top, rather than serving a greater vision. I think that you nailed that point very well, Sheila!

    Yet, there is a term that progressives often think of, but to which “moderates” are allergic – “neoliberal.” Neoliberals are not moderates, but they hide behind that term, as I see it, insisting that it is rude and hostile to even use the term “neoliberal.” Among Democrats, they would have us believe that “neoliberal” is the new “N” word.

    Yet, as long as we allow people without vision continuing to support the privileges of wealth and skin color, to hide behind “moderate,” we are allowing them to control the levers of power in these troubled times. By definition, we need “moderation.” So, they win support, their lack of vision actually a crown of glory. This default to the status quo, is sold as representing a middle ground.

    Neoliberalism is not a middle ground, though, for the same reasons that you decry the lack of leadership and vision among such Democrats. Using the term “neoliberal” is very offensive to “moderates.” But perhaps that is precisely why it can be used to get some spirited debate going again, and to name the malaise that is actually afflicting the Democratic Party. It is not “moderation” that is harming us. Progressives do a lot of consensus building that cuts across party lines and ideologies.

    Neoliberals push back by calling progressives “socialist,” thinking that they are appeasing the white working class. However, these pepsudo-moderates are ultimately acquiescing to the privileges of wealth and color that marginalize the majority and make it seem that we never have any good alternatives.

    In the long run, I wonder whether it is specifically neoliberal moderation and Clintonian triangulation that prevent new leadership and new ideas drawing from both liberal and conservative sectors looking at our common challenges and seeking new vision. I wonder whether it is “moderation” in the hands of pseudo-moderates that is shutting down the healthy debate we need in a free society and thus contributing to polarization and stagnation.

  9. Hey, running silent and deep worked pretty well for Greg Pence. As we’ve all learned, winning is a heck of a lot more important than leading/doing.

  10. Additionally, while I love me some good advertising and PR work, I think people need to work on defining some terms.

    I’ve seen that now hard right libertarians have abandoned that original term, moved away from using “Anarcho Capitalist” and have now settled on “Classical Liberal”. I admit, it does sound better than their other options, but I’m not sure it says what they actually think.

    “Neo-Liberal” – while meant as a kind of slur by many doesn’t seem to me to really conjure up the actual, mostly conservative with a dash of social conscious position.

    “Socialist” is utterly meaningless – everything from actual socialism (which no one can define it seems) to a tepid level of minimal govt. involvement is now socialism.

    I know a lot of things need fixed, but I’d be happy to start with getting people to use the same, some degree of accurate vocabulary.

  11. “Oh what we would give for another Bill Hudnut.” When Hudnut was mayor, he lived a block west of Spring Mill. I lived a block east of Spring Mill. Spring Mill was always well-paved. Congressman Andy Jacobs was 4 blocks west of Spring Mill and was also a close friend of Bill Hudnut. Is it possible that Hudnut got all of his really good ideas from Jacobs? I know one person he didn’t get them from. Me.

    Perhaps he got them from all the responders to Sheila’s blog today.

  12. Theresa @ 8:52 am, excellent comments about Joe Donnelly. I could say much the same thing about Evan Bayh and John Gregg, it is difficult to figure out what any of these three stand for. I feel fairly confident the Democratic Party in Indiana will manage to find some empty suit to run for Governor next time around.

    There is a huge difference between the moderate/pragmatic politician who does not lead but allows the tide to carry him or her along vs a Progressive who is willing to step out and step up.

    Norman Solomon writes, “National polling shows that the U.S. public strongly favors bold policy proposals that Bernie Sanders has been championing for a long time. On issues ranging from climate change to Medicare for All to tuition-free public college to Wall Street power, the party’s base has been moving leftward, largely propelled by an upsurge of engagement from progressive young people. This momentum is a threat to the forces accustomed to dominating the Democratic Party.”

    As Bernie Sanders said before Bush the Younger’s Gulf War 2, “I am concerned about the problems of so-called unintended consequences. Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country?”

    Well Iraq ended up in chaos and the chaos could not be contained and has now spread all over the Middle East.

    One word labels do not describe the totality of a person. That said there is an enormous difference between a Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and a Joe Donnelly.

  13. “Why do they seek office if they aren’t interested in leading their communities in a particular direction? Do they view these offices merely as stepping-stones to something else?”

    Why, yes. Yes, they do.

  14. I recall Mayor Hogsett focusing on sidewalks and creating more of them. Well, that’s nice. There are more around my neighborhood. But I have not heard him articulate a vision for our city that is sensitive to the concerns of the citizens.

    About 1 week ago 2 men drove down my street and shot at one another in a neighborhood that I thought would be low crime. I am guessing it was drug and/or gang related. Fortunately none us who live in the neighborhood were injured, and no one’s property was damaged. Unfortunately one may was critically injured, and the other one got away. It got very little coverage in the local media.

    Sidewalks will not help us if we don’t feel safe. Criminals don’t like noise and lights that draw attention to them. Maybe the mayor should focus on creating more street lights that draw on solar energy or some other non-fossil fuel.

    We need leadership on addressing the opioid crisis, gun violence, IPS, and mass transit. The sidewalks just feel superficially cosmetic to me.

    We need leaders who have a clear vision that is created out of the concerns of citizens, who can motivate people to get on board with that vision. We need leaders who can then create good strategic planning to implement that vision. Where are they?

  15. Paul Rakes; I worked the 16 years under Mayor Hudnut; part of my service was in a Division of his Mayor’s Office which monitored federal funds into all multi-service, senior and health centers in Marion county. We provided excellent services to any and all in need; including Immigration and Naturalization Services for ALL immigrants. He had his finger on the pulse of this city; if he got some of his ideas from Andy Jacobs or from his constituents, he put them to use if they were useful. His hiring practices ended sexism, racism, nepotism, political patronage, bigotry and he and his staff hired Democrats if they were the most qualified to do a job. He was the “People’s Mayor”; I had the honor of working with him a few times, was always proud to work for and support him…didn’t always agree with him but he didn’t expect or want agreement, he wanted honest responses. I was with the City long enough, 2 years, 3 months and 11 days, to watch Steve Goldsmith dismantle and destroy the Hudnut system, a working city government, and turn Indianapolis city government into a microcosm of the Nixon administration…and a sample of the current Trump MIS-administration at the federal level.

    And no other city in this country had a 6 foot, 5 inch tall Mayor who led every St. Patrick’s Day parade dressed in a green suit and top hat.

  16. I believe that one of the words that we have lost respect for in our times is democracy. It’s been lost in extremism.

    Democracy really means that nobody gets their way. Everyone in a democracy compromises with every vote but what makes it work it’s magic in defending freedom is unity. We are unified more than we are separate. We unify behind leaders for whom we have respect.

    I think that in the present we can and do find fault with everyone in the public eye because none of the them are perfect and they feel the same way about their public, none of us are perfect.

    If we wait for perfect we’ll never get anything accomplished. If we wait for someone who is only progressive, or only moderate which are words we can’t even define precisely, we will have to settle for chameleons.

    It’s necessary to move on, to decide what we can agree on not what we can disagree on.

    United we stand divided we fall.

  17. To those who are banking on the younger generation to drive the politics of progressive change in Indiana, think about what the state looks like. Rural Indiana is losing young people almost every year as they leave to go to the city or move to another state for work of any kind. The remaining residents are older and likely poorer in wealth and health but rich in evangelical dependence on a higher power to save them from ruin. Big Agra and Big Pharma as well as Big Fossil Fuel control much of what those younger people leave behind only to find those same Indiana power brokers are in control in the General Assembly, aided and abetted by the wholly-owned Gannett local and state media. Indiana has 4 big universities and many mid-to small universities with graduates who leave the state in droves every June. Lack of opportunity is only part of the answer as to why. I suspect it has much more to do with the quality of life they can expect if they stay. A state that ranks right down there with Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas in most significant quality of life measures is not likely to keep them here.
    If Indiana is ever going keep its young voters in place long enough to change the culture, we need to make the state a welcoming, safe, open-minded and open-armed place with mutual respect and transparency in all aspect of governance, local, state and federal. I am not holding my breath.

  18. Joe Hogsett and Bart Peterson learned politics from Evan Bayh. Both Evan and Bart were Republican-lite. Even though I no longer live in Indianapolis, it is obvious to me that Indianapolis has moved Left. While I’m dismayed to hear Joe is timid, I’m not at all surprised.

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