Tag Archives: political discourse

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.