On Moderates

Hamilton Nolan writes for Gizmodo Media Group. He writes a lot, and in some sense, every post of his hits the same key talking points: Don’t play nice with political opponents simply for the sake of playing nice; don’t trust entrenched interests; and unionize. That fact that he’s right on each of these counts makes his dogged, ceaseless repetition less grating. And in a recent article, which notes that requesting civility in politics is like requesting decorum in a bum fight, a few lines of his struck a chord with me. Here’s the key section:

Everything in politics cannot be solved by compromise. Abortion is legal, or it’s not. That awful Supreme Court justice is confirmed, or he’s not. Pollution is properly regulated, or it’s not. Our tax system is sufficiently progressive, or it’s not. We go to war, or we don’t. Every one of these choices is ultimately a statement of morality—a conviction about what is right and wrong. Valuing “bipartisanship” on the really important issues is an admission that you have no real beliefs.

A thread that Nolan doesn’t fully explore, and that I’d like to here, is encompassed in that final sentence. One group that’s become lionized–that may never not be lionized, in certain circles–is the so-called “moderate.” Moderates have no stake in the game, you see. They’ve matured beyond the mudslinging of partisan politics and are able to evaluate positions strictly on the basis of each position’s inherent values. They are the kinds of fellows who don’t get worked up about the triflings of Affirmative Action or the gender gap: They recognize those groups have been disadvantaged historically, but they merely want (over and over they proclaim their desires for!) a truly meritocratic system. While other fringe politicians and hard-wired activists can get triggered by hot-button issues, these moderates–unicorns, really–rise above it all for common sense.

There are three kinds of individuals who may find themselves deemed “moderates.” First is the False Moderate, whose political leanings pull a la carte from the dominant parties. Here lies individuals such as the textbook libertarian–chill with weed and gay marriage, yet opposed to taxes–or those who want more government involvement, if only because they can help quell Black Lives Matter protests a bit more quickly. For the purposes of this post, I have no truck with these “moderates,” who tend to be complex individuals with preferences drawn from their immediate, narrow surroundings. Mostly, though, it is worth clarifying that these individuals are not moderates, for there is nothing moderate, or toned down, in their belief structure; they have merely managed to incorrigibly patch different positions into an idiosyncratic political quilt.

Second, we have the shrewd politicians, like Maine Senator Susan Collins, Arizona Senator John McCain, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who recognize the clout that being perpetual tagged as a “Moderate Republican” provides. (It’s worth noting that “moderate Democrat” means you’re Joe Manchin and you’re hated by your colleagues; the true independent Democrats–Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders–swing far to the left.) Even though the Republicans narrowly control the senate, Collins, McCain, and Murkowski are perpetually identified as swing voters, singled out in newspapers and new media articles alike as bellwethers to keep in check the right’s rampant conservatism. Their moderateness is merely a cloak, used to tag them as “too good to be a mere partisan rube,” despite voting patterns that show them to be much more partisan than an elected official from their fairly purple states ought to be. These are Opening Clause Moderates, needing only to express the slightest, most cursory reservations to Betsy DeVos before they turn around–always with the rejoining “but” or “however” or “nevertheless”–and gut spending on education.

Mostly, I want to discuss the final group of moderates, who I will term the Liz Spayd Moderates. The Liz Spayd Moderates exist in a separate universe where every opinion has merit, and differing viewpoints simply must be heard–if not in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, then on the idyllic unfettered quads of our nation’s college campuses. There is an assumption that the Liz Spayd Moderates make, a flattening of magnitude and removal of nuance, that, for example, equates the work of Black Lives Matter activists and terrorist groups, that allows climate change scientists and climate change deniers equal real estate in their pages and, presumably, in their minds.

What I’m getting at, really, is that being a moderate on a particular topic often indicates not a cooled, morally responsible detachment from the emotion that topic provokes; rather, it indicates an intellectual laziness. This isn’t to say that the only valid position is an extreme position. But it is to say that constant hedging and inability to stake a definitive claim as to which side has more merit is a cop-out. It is a binary codification of evidence–some people say A, while others say B, therefore who knows?–that ignores the fact that those people saying A represent 99.9% of experts and that those saying B are unfailingly funded by the Koch Brothers. And when that initial Liz Spayd Moderate is distilling this information for the masses, he/she stacks the scales in a manner that misleads. The Liz Spayd Moderate builds debate from consensus, forging an ESPN First Take episode that pits actual scientists against race scientists, Nazis against Nazi protestors, and tries to make an argument for each.

The context of “hearing both sides,” then, is an exercise for “moderates” that is couched in one or two leading impulses: either the perfunctory political maneuvering that plays well in headlines, or the desire to announce to one’s peers that critical thinking is an elusive skill not currently in one’s possession. This understanding leads, quickly, to a loud, far-from-mincing conclusion: Moderates are not to be trusted, and, certainly, they’re not to be praised.


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