Defining Moderation

Remember our prior discussions of the Overton Window?The Overton window is the name given to the range of policies that are considered politically acceptable by the mainstream population at a particular time. It’s named (duh!) for someone named Overton, who noted that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that range.

The rightward movement of the Overton Window over the past few decades explains why the hand-wringing of the “chattering classes” over the disappearance of “moderation” is so misplaced.

I have noted previously that in 1980, when I ran for Congress as a Republican, I was frequently accused of being much too conservative. My political philosophy hasn’t changed (although my position on a couple of issues has, shall we say, “matured” as I became more informed about those issues)–and now I am routinely accused of being a pinko/socialist/commie.

My experience is anything but unique. I basically stood still; the Overton Window moved. Significantly.

As the GOP moved from center-right to radical right to semi-fascist, the definition of “moderation” moved with it. America has never had a true leftwing party of the type typical in Europe, but today, anything “left” of insane is labeled either moderate or “librul.” That makes these tiresome screeds about the lack of moderation dangerously misleading.

As Peter Dreir recently wrote at Talking Points Memo,(behind the TPM paywall),

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described how the infrastructure bill was passed: “After months of negotiation among President Biden, Democrats and a group of moderate Republicans to forge a compromise, the Senate voted 69 to 30 in favor of the legislation.”

The Times then listed the “ten centrist senators” — five Republicans and five Democrats — who worked to craft the bill: Republicans Rob Portman (OH), Bill Cassidy (LA), Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT) and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen (NH) Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Warner (VA), and Sinema.

But by what stretch of the imagination are Cassidy, Portman, Romney, Collins and Murkowski “moderate” or “centrist” Republicans? None of them are even close to the “center” of America’s ideological spectrum. They all have opposed raising taxes on the wealthy, toughening environmental standards, expanding voting rights, adopting background checks for gun sales and limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons, and other measures that, according to polls, are overwhelmingly popular with the American public.

As the essay points out, there is no longer any overlap between America’s two major parties. There may be some overlap among voters, but not among elected officials.

What we have experienced is what political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” Over the past decades, as the scholarly literature and survey research make abundantly clear, Republicans have moved far, far to the right, while Democrats have moved slightly to the left.

Finding a center point between the far right and the center-left may be “splitting the difference,” but only in an alternate universe can it be considered “moderation.”

When I became politically active, people like Michael Gerson were considered quite conservative. But Gerson stopped well short of crazy, and he has been a clear-eyed critic of the GOP’s descent into suicidal politics.  Gerson recently considered the spectacle of DeSantis and Abbot, who have been playing to the populist base of today’s Republican Party.

These governors are attempting, of course, to take refuge in principle — the traditional right not to have cloth next to your face, or the sacred right to spread nasty infections to your neighbors. But such “rights” talk is misapplied in this context. The duty to protect public health during a pandemic is, by nature, an aggregate commitment. Success or failure is measured only in a total sum. Incompetence in this area is a fundamental miscarriage of governing. Knowingly taking actions that undermine public health is properly called sabotage, as surely as putting anthrax in the water supply….

The problem for the Republican Party is that one of the central demands of a key interest group is now an act of sociopathic insanity. Some of the most basic measures of public health have suddenly become the political equivalent of gun confiscation. It’s as if the activist wing of the GOP decided that municipal trash pickup is a dangerous socialist experiment. Or chlorine in public pools is an antifa plot. There can be no absolute political right to undermine the health and safety of your community. Or else community has no meaning.

If “moderation” means finding middle ground between sociopathic insanity and common sense, language has lost any ability to inform or communicate. When presumably serious commentators misuse such terminology, it just makes it more difficult to cure–or even understand– our manifest political dysfunctions.


  1. To be fair, moving ever rightward and demanding to be met in the middle has worked like gangbusters for the Republicans when it comes to their electoral success. A little (okay a lot) of gerrymandering plus a lot of crazy sure is hard to stop.

  2. I think I mentioned Wittgenstein here recently. His comment about language seems appropriate in this context. Somewhere (perhaps in the Philosophical Investigations) he said that although language is a medium of communication, sometimes it becomes the driver. That seems to be what has happened to the GOP in the last generation, starting with Barry Goldwater.

  3. I’d like to know who these scientists or educators claim the Democratic Party has moved “center-left.” The base has moved in that direction, but the politicians are following the money, which has moved to the right with the GOP.

    The young people sense it better than the traditional news media groupies. I can see it much better on Twitter, and my understanding is Reddit is even further Left.

    An interesting experiment is that the Chinese government is addressing social inequalities with its billionaires. Both Biden and Hillary Clinton say that this period of time will be important for historians whether the West’s democracies or the Eastern autocracies navigate better. For one, the West are oligarchies who pretend to be democracies. We just saw this play out in Afghanistan with the worst outcome, yet the media has still protected the MIC/Beltway Bandits who kept us in colossal failure for two decades of record-breaking profits for them and lied us up until the last minute and are still lying to us.

    Anyway, Xi has issued a decree about breaking up the billionaire’s accumulated businesses under capitalism to level the playing field. So what will our oligarchies agree to do in the West?

    I suspect they’ll do nothing but look for another war because quarterly profits will decline dramatically without milking the US taxpayer of funds. Julian Assange told the world exactly what was happening in Afghanistan eleven years ago and why. But, unfortunately, the MIC silenced him and tortured him while they continued with their crimes. The Western media went silent. I wonder if there will be investigations?

  4. “If “moderation” means finding middle ground between sociopathic insanity and common sense, language has lost any ability to inform or communicate.”

    Let’s apply the above quote from Sheila to the current situation in Afghanistan; “moderation” cannot be found in the thousands of years of the middle-east culture and religious beliefs. The only difference between the Afghan population who sought “democracy”, and were aided by our troops and the allies, and the extremism and terrorism of the Taliban is a matter of degrees. The Taliban has easily been making deep and long inroads into the population all along or they would not so easily been able to cause the collapse and abandonment by the government in only NINE DAYS because American troops and allies were withdrawing after TWENTY YEARS and trillions of dollars in support and aid to that country.

    The media needs to resort to “Defining Moderation” in their attacks on the current administration and placing blame for the total collapse of Afghanistan and ensuing chaos during attempts at safe evacuation with the Taliban in full control of that country and only the Kabul airport as a safe harbor for millions of people. We cannot evacuate 65,000 people in two weeks and fight the Taliban outside the gates of the airport; the only possible escape route.

  5. Everything I see in polling sort of negates the Overton theory altogether. While American politics have moved radically to the right, the American people remain pretty much where they’ve been all along. I look at the recent school board dilemmas about requiring masks. Sadly, far too many school boards have caved to the small, but loud and threatening minority who are demanding their right to kill the children, the teachers, and any vulnerable people in their homes. So the lunatic fringe is in control.

    It’s not so much the response as it is how the question is posed.

  6. It seems to me, in the context of this discussion, the Taliban knew precisely where their center point was supported by discipline to hold that in trust for twenty years until the American military occupation was over.

  7. Peggy; I won’t name the local school in Indy who requires masks for all but, in less than one week being back in class one student was diagnosed with Covid. The only person told to remain in quarantine was the student sitting next to them, 3 feet apart. The same distance for those in front of and behind the infected student.

    I didn’t bother include anything about the mask issue and escalating Pandemic with numerous variations because there is no way to find “moderation” in the Pandemic which is now a major political issue in this country. And I thought Sarah Palin’s accusation of the “Death Squad” clause of the ACA was a ridiculous Republican political issue which forced removal of that important clause.

  8. We are, once again, visiting the old saw that “He who makes the definitions, has the power.”
    As per yesterday’s theme, we are continuing to deal with the post-reconstruction, odious, “definition” of what is good for the country.

  9. Media is a business. All successful businesses have the means to get the word out to consumers that they should buy what the business has for sale in preference to any other choice. Nobody needs an MBA to understand that.

    If you are media in the business of attracting ears and eyes to your channel your business success depends on a loyal audience that just doesn’t leave you for another outlet. Fox News has the advertising formula. We all know who are the loyal Fox audience. Can you imagine any in that cohort switching channels? I have never met them if they exist.

    Capitalism at its finest makes the Murdoch family one of the wealthiest in the world in the media business. Their wealth has been and is gathered at the expense of the success of various countries in the world. Thinking that’s too bad doesn’t cut it in a cutthroat business. We have to do something which is hampered by the politics that they create. They are drug dealers.

    Their methods may be legal compared to say the Taliban but the results are the same. Wealth for the sake of ever more.

  10. Can we cut to the chase? Americans would crawl across cut glass to keep their “power” and/or status. That’s as American as apple pie and exporting death.
    The U.S. is a dying empire. That’s a fact. It’s infrastructure is old and ragged. Its healthcare system is shit. Its populace is fragmented,balkanized and at war against and amongst themselves. Its military excursions only benefit the contractors and MIC. America is a humiliated nation. A nation of masochists addicted to being humiliated and eating the shit sandwiches divided out to the populace by the donor class and its representatives of both political organizations. The experiment failed. America is a country of failures,losers and ugly people. Perhaps when the U.S. has finally been damaged to the extent that it can no longer harm the lands of others,the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The U.S. has destroyed –for decades–the lives of others around the world. When the U.S. can no longer afford military excursions and its people can no longer afford a loaf of bread, what will be the response? Americans will continue to worship the politicians that brought to them such conditions. Americans are stupid. They love getting the shaft from their “betters”. The U.S. is a bloodthirsty country of vile,foul and nasty individuals. GodDamn the U.S.A. and its delusions of world domination.

  11. It often looks to me like moderate Democrats like Manchin sound more like “moderate” Republicans. The moderates are caught in the cross fire between those on the far right and the far left. It cannot be easy to continually engage in conflict resolution, trying to get obstinate people to compromise.

    Sadly, children and their educators are also caught in the cross fire. I am appalled that the children of this nation and their educators are being exposed to a deadly virus because they too are now caught in the political crossfire, like 2 parents putting their kids in the middle of their conflict. This simply proves that some have a lust for power so immense that they have lost their reverence for life. And that is the way sociopaths think and act. Don’t talk to me about parents’ rights. What about the rights of children? De Santis and Abbot are not only killing off their own adult base, they are being severely negligent towards the children and their educators.

    I can only hope the House of Reps. finds a way forward with the infrastructure bill. I would like for those on the far left and right to stop being obstructionist. This creates the dysfunction in Congress and undermines the Overton principle

    The problem with Congress is that they are not in touch with the American people.This also undermines the Overton principle. I doubt SCOTUS is as well since it has been changed into a conservative judiciary.

    And as long as the divisivness in our country remains, we will not move forward on creating strategies that allow this country to create effective policies that address the challenges and threats we face. It will also not allow us to create policies that support innovation, that allow us to take advantage of good opportunites.

    It’s time to say the Serenity Prayer once again.

  12. Yeah, as a conservative, I guess I will have to challenge the premise that the Republican Party has become more conservative. I came of political age in 1980. Back then we were against big government, abhorred budget deficits, wanted to cut federal spending and believed, deeply, in federalism and local control. We also fervently believed in free speech and the right of businesses to make decisions about how they will operate. We embraced immigration. We wanted people to want to come to the United States and considered those new Americans to be some of the best Americans.

    Those conservative principles no longer guide the GOP. Trump Republicans (I use that term though the trend started pre-Trump) love big government (as long as they get to run it), have no problem with big budget deficits or federal spending. Trump Republicans think government should be able to force private businesses into adopting policies they prefer. They think they First Amendment allows Americans too much freedom to express their views. Of late, they’ve even turned against free and fair elections where everyone, who wants to, can vote. And of course, these Trump Republicans hate immigrants and wanna-be immigrants, especially those who have brown skin and are not Christian. That was not what we conservatives believed in 1980.

    The media, understandably, love to simplify and label things for viewers. They have decided to explain Trumpism by saying it’s a far right movement within the Republican Party. Ghat is most certainly not accurate. Most of the leading anti-Trump Republicans (or ex-Republicans) out there are conservative intellectuals. (Not sure the planet on which George Will and Bill Kristol are considered “moderates.”) Rather it is the moderate Republicans (which I would argue are often unprincipled) who are all in on Donald Trump.

    The Trump Republicans’ opposition to the infrastructure bill is purely performative. It’s not that they are worried about spending. (They proved that when Trump was in office.) They are worried about helping Joe Biden out and hurting their GOP team. There is nothing Biden has proposed in office that Trump Republicans would not have supported had Trump been the one putting the proposal forward.

    A large segment of Republicans who are no longer driven by conservative principles or ideology. It is all about tribalism – our team is good, even blessed by God, while the other side is pure evil. Worse yet, these Republicans believe in winning at any cost. If the Constitution or American democracy gets in the way of winning, then the Constitution and American democracy needs to bend.

    We are living in troubled times. In 2024, the presidential election (especially if Trump is the GOP candidate) may well not be decided by voters, but by state or federal GOP officials who override the will of the voters. There was an effort to do that in 2020 but it failed because there were Republicans who were committed to doing the right thing and there were safeguards in place. Those Republicans and those safeguards are being eliminated. Democrats obsess about minor changes to voting while ignoring the far bigger danger that those votes won’t matter. Beware the vote counters. Can’t say it enough.

  13. “We are living in troubled times. In 2024, the presidential election (especially if Trump is the GOP candidate) may well not be decided by voters, but by state or federal GOP officials who override the will of the voters. There was an effort to do that in 2020 but it failed because there were Republicans who were committed to doing the right thing and there were safeguards in place. Those Republicans and those safeguards are being eliminated.”

    Paul; I was living in Florida in 2020 and watched newscasts and read newspapers as George W’s brother Gov. Jeb Bush’ state demanded a recount. They had declared voters at the polls to be convicted felons to turn them away; some were listed as deceased and turned away, those reports were on the news during the election. The same accusations and votes disallowed from the electronic voting machines due to “handing chad” were used to deny the votes in the recount. Using the electronic voting machines, you could feel that the punch did not go through. During the recount a locked closet filled with boxes of mail-in ballots happened to be “found” but declared not received in time to be counted in the election. They had been safely locked away till the proper time to be counted. Day after day it appeared in the Florida media that Al Gore was the projected winner. And we all know the outcome of that election.

  14. The GOP guiding light for several years has been “Win at all Costs”. I would suspect most of us would not have imagined how far they were willing to go, even to the extent of fighting back against Science and Medical Professionals during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

    Idiots like the Trump bootlicker De Santis in Florida has decided No Masks in Schools – His mantra is parents are the best judges of Hygiene and Safety. I wonder how many of these “parents” have medical degrees, etc. No matter in the world of the New GOP my willful ignorance is equal to your Medical Science.

    Our own home grown Taliban tried to seize the Capitol Building and install The Trumpet as President. Thankfully, our Capitol and DC Police did not run away and enough Elected Officials confirmed Biden’s victory.

    Now as many here have commented – Who Counts the Votes – will be critical in 2022 and 2024. The whole idea will be to discredit the election apparatus, where the GOP loses. Florida 2000 maybe a preview of what we will see.

  15. Paul K. Ogden, you are redefining conservatism to make your point. The Rs have indeed become more conservative, it’s just that the far right, beyond the fringes of what you consider “conservative,” look just like fascism. It may make you feel better to think there is some morally correct conservatism that has nothing to do with these people, but the past actions of conservative reactionaries directly led to what we have today. The truth is that “conservatism” has always been about resistance to improvement by those who already have what they want, up to and including defending the status quo by force, and that is precisely what we see today.

  16. Sheila – A quick thank you for an excellent post on a point I’ve been ranting about for a long time. I think Robin missed the point with her “moderate” Manchin and “both sides” comments, but so goes it.

    I will note that Bill Clinton chased the Reagan vote and moved the Democrats to the right with his “triangulation” strategy which basically meant embracing ideas favored by the then current GOP, but Obama and now Biden have nudged the Democrats back a little to the left.

    Thank you again. Well written, as usual, and an important point.

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