Tag Archives: moderation

Meeting In The Middle? Where’s That?

With the Biden-Harris team in the White House, Republicans and pundits are sanctimoniously insisting that “unity” requires “meeting in the middle.” The use of that term–“the middle”–reveals a significant misunderstanding of the definition of moderation and the process of compromise.

It also drives me nuts.

A friend recently reminded me of Jim Hightower’s observation that  there’s nothing in the mIddle of the highway except a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

What is “the middle” between belief in QAnon and adherence to the Constitution? What’s the “middle” between White Supremacy and effective civil rights protections? Between accurate reporting and propaganda? Between protecting the rich and feeding hungry children?

What, exactly, is this magic “middle”?

I have referred previously to the Overton Window. That window is the range of public policies that are widely acceptable to voters at a specific point in time. The window does shift–perhaps the most vivid recent example is same-sex marriage: thirty years ago, efforts to recognize such marriages were virtually unthinkable; today, a majority of Americans approve of them. 

Shifts of the Overton window illustrate how our concepts of both the “middle” and what constitutes moderation change.

During my adult lifetime, the Republican Party has steadily moved to the right, pulling both the Democrats and “the middle” along with it. Today–and I do not intend this as hyperbole–the GOP is located somewhere between radically reactionary and insane. The fact that members of this incredibly retrograde party consider contemporary Democrats “far left” is meaningless–next to today’s GOP, my conservative grandmother would be far left. Political science research confirms that America’s most “left-wing” politicians are not nearly as “left” as most Europeans who fall into that category.

Which brings me back to the calls of well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) observers for “middle ground,” “bipartisanship,” “moderation” and “compromise. “

Bipartisanship can be achieved whenever members from both the GOP and the Democratic Party agree on a policy. The House vote to impeach Trump a second time was bipartisan, because ten Republicans voted yes. The term is  simply descriptive, although it tends to be used to suggest that bipartisanship equates to virtue. It doesn’t. If members of both major parties voted to deprive Muslims of citizenship, the fact that the vote was bipartisan would not  magically make it  virtuous. Plenty of racist laws have been passed with bipartisan support.

Compromising requires good-faith negotiation over points of honest contention. For example, Biden is reportedly willing to compromise with lawmakers over his COVID package by acceding to (quite reasonable) requests that stimulus payments not go to high-income families. Compromise in order to make at least incremental progress on an issue–rather than intransigence preventing any progress at all– is usually positive, but if by “compromise” we mean the evisceration of a good policy in order to accomplish an empty victory, not so much.

It depends on the compromise.

Moderation is defined as the absence of extremism. Unfortunately, given how insane the GOP has become, most media outlets automatically label any Republican who isn’t a QAnon believer or Big Lie promoter a “moderate.” Her vote to impeach Trump was correct and even admirable, but it did not make Liz Cheney a moderate.

Bottom line: the search for a “middle ground” is only reasonable when the parties involved in a particular dispute are rational, intellectually honest and operating in good faith.

These current calls for middle ground, moderation and bipartisanship remind me of Rodney King’s famous plea: “can’t we all get along?” That desire to “get along”– to be generous and civil and non-confrontational– is incredibly appealing. It resonates because so much of our public life right now is so rancorous and ugly. Believe me, I understand where it comes from. 

But permit me an analogy:

When your two-year old has a tantrum because he wants two cookies that he shouldn’t have, you don’t mollify him by finding “middle ground.” You don’t reward the outburst by giving him one cookie.  Your obligation as a parent is to help him mature into an adult who understands that inappropriate behaviors will not get him even a portion of what he wants.

There are a lot of two-year-olds in today’s QOP, including  most obviously the former President. The rest of us should tune out the screaming and crying and help the few who seem capable of it to grow up. “Meeting in the middle”–when the middle is halfway between sense and nonsense– is as bad for public policy as it is for parenting.

There’s a reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists.






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.



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.”

A Lesson from the Chanukah Story

Chanukah has just ended. In honor of the holiday, a Buddhist cousin sent me a story from the Huffington Post titled “The Real History of Chanukah is More Complicated than you Probably Thought.”

It actually was.

In Sunday School, we were basically taught that Judah Maccabee led a successful revolt against Antiochus, whose Seleucid empire had taken over Judea and was forcing the Hellenization of the Jewish people. (I dimly remember something about pigs in the Temple…). The Maccabees won, and when they commenced clean-up of the Temple, discovered that there was only  enough oil to light the holy menorahs for a day—but a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days, just long enough to allow a runner to obtain more.

If my recollection is hazy (it is), my defense is that Chanukah (spelled however you like) was a very minor holiday until Christmas, celebrated around the same time of year, became so commercialized, and we Jews didn’t want our children to feel left out. The lesson of Chanukah was the importance of religious liberty, which was duly noted, and then we moved on….

According to the Huffington Post, real history was a bit more complicated. Initially, a number of the Jews embraced aspects of the Seleucids’ Hellenic culture.

“The initiative and impetus for this often came from the locals themselves,” said Shaye J.D. Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard and author of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. “They were eager to join the general, global community.”…

The rising influence of hellenism was not immediately a source of open conflict within the Jewish community. In fact, hellenism permeated even the most traditional circles of Jewish society to one degree or another. A typical Judean would have worn Greek robes and been proficient in the Greek language whether he was urban or rural, rich or poor, a pious practitioner of the Mosaic faith or a dabbler in polytheism.

“Becoming more hellenized didn’t mean they were less Jewish as a result,” said Erich Gruen, an emeritus history professor at Berkeley and author of Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. “Most Jews didn’t see hellenism as the enemy or any way compromising their sense of themselves as Jews.”

The rebellion came only when Antiochus pushed the more pious Jews too far, engaging in a campaign of radical hellenization–prohibiting fundamental Jewish practices, and introducing foreign rites and practices in the Temple.

“They actually rebel only when the religious persecution reached a level they could no longer tolerate,” said Cohen, who also chairs Harvard’s department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “The line in the sand seems to have been the Torah and the [commandments], and the profaning of the ritual of the Temple.”

Cohen characterizes these Jews not as zealots, but as “realists.” Until then, they had embraced many hellenistic norms in their own lives and accommodated the spread of practices to which they objected — such as foreign worship — among their co-religionists.

There certainly is a lesson here, and it actually goes well beyond the importance of respecting religious differences/liberties in a diverse society. Ironically, it is a lesson taught by the early Greeks—the importance of moderation, of aiming for the “mean between extremes.”

These days, we might say “Don’t push your luck,” or “Pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered.”

When will working Americans decide that they are being pushed too far? When the Walmarts and their ilk continue to resist paying a fair wage? When their wholly-owned politicians work tirelessly to deny medical care to those who are struggling financially? When their lobbyists argue for cutting social programs in order to give the rich greater tax breaks? When the bankers who precipitated the Great Recession continue awarding each other obscene bonuses…???

How far is too far?

Happy Chanukah…..