A long time ago–twenty or so years, as my worsening memory calculates it–I tried to organize a local political group around the principles of civil discourse and moderation. I was concerned at the time about the nasty confrontations and unwillingness to negotiate that were increasingly characterizing political debate, and in my naiveté, I thought a group of nice, earnest folks might be able to nudge local combatants back toward an ill-defined “center.”
We called it the “American Values Alliance,” and you can guess how well that went. As one member concluded, there’s a reason you never see gangs of marching moderates.
In the years since that abortive effort, as the practice of “on the ground” politics has dramatically changed, I’ve come to recognize the massive impediments to–and lack of wisdom of– similar attempts.
In the past, “moderate” essentially meant “in the middle.” A moderate was someone who understood that half a loaf was better than no bread at all, and was willing to sit down with proponents of contrary policies to see if some middle ground existed. That approach works when the opposing positions are center-left and center-right–or at least when proponents of different policies come from rational, albeit different, perspectives.
When one side of a conflict wants to deprive the other side of fundamental rights, there is no “middle.”
What does half a loaf look like when the argument is about the right of trans children to access lifesaving medical care? What is the “middle ground” in a debate over who gets to decide whether a woman reproduces?
How do we “negotiate” with lawmakers who call LGBTQ citizens “abominations” and insist that nonChristians aren’t “real Americans”?
What is the “middle ground” between banning books and respecting the expertise of schoolteachers and librarians–not to mention the rights of parents who disagree?
When a political party threatens to upend the global financial order by refusing to authorize the payment of bills already incurred–amounts the government owes (thanks in many cases to votes cast by those now threatening to default)–giving in to some of that party’s demands is negotiating with terrorists and encouraging future blackmail.
I’m sure you can all come up with similar examples.
I tend to think of moderation today as the definition being employed by ReCenter, the organization I wrote about a couple of weeks ago–not as a center point between policy positions, but as a characteristic of reasonable people. A moderate person, defined in that way, is a rational citizen, someone open to discourse and amenable to evidence–not a rabid ideologue or bigot.
My sister recently hit the nail on the head when she opined that the arguments currently taking place between the parties aren’t about policy–they’re about morality.
My sister and I both used to be among those thousands of Republican women who volunteered in our respective precincts to get out the vote, and considered ourselves to be…yes…moderates. We currently number among the thousands who have fled the racist, homophobic, misogynistic cult that is today’s GOP.
I don’t know how one becomes a “moderate” racist or anti-Semite. I don’t know how the base of the GOP squares its current positions with the moral aspirations of the U.S. Constitution or the historic American emphasis on civic equality and democratic decision-making.
What prompted this particular diatribe was an important recent statement by Third Way’s executive vice president. Progressives routinely accuse Third Way of being unrealistically moderate, but the statement–quite correctly, in my opinion– lambasted another presumably “moderate” group, No Labels:
The group No Labels is holding its nominating convention in Dallas to select a 3rd Party candidate that most assuredly would hurt Biden and elect Trump or whoever wins the GOP nomination. They have already raised $70m. They are already on the ballot in a bunch of states. And in a map they recently published showing their absurd path to 270 electoral college votes, they’ve targeted 23 states for victory—19 won by Biden and 4 won by Trump. That gives you an idea of what they’re up to and who they really want to elect. And as a reminder, No Labels endorsed Trump in 2016.
(Subsequently, evidence emerged that Republican “dark money” is funding No Labels.)
In a sane world, moderation and willingness to compromise are virtues. We don’t currently occupy a sane world. As a letter to the Washington Post accurately put it:
One side believes in American democracy, while the other has attacked it. One is governing from the mainstream, while the other champions extremism. One seeks to work collaboratively on the issues; the other has given way to conspiracy theorists and cranks.
A vote for No Labels –or for any third-party candidate–isn’t evidence of moderation. It’s a Faustian bargain.