It’s Hard Out There for a Moderate

Not everyone gets called a socialist and a fascist in the same day. Most people must be content with either one or the other. Achieving the dubious distinction of both labels requires a certain amount of talent. Unless, of course, you are, as I am, that most misunderstood of people: a political moderate, in which case it is a common experience.
What exactly is a political moderate anyways? It’s an easy concept to know but a hard one to understand. Wikipedia defines a political moderate as “an individual who holds the middle position between those generally classified as being left-wing or liberal and those seen as right-wing or conservative.” Simple enough, isn’t it? If only.
The truth is that like everything else in life, political classification is more complex than this statement suggests. Simply visualizing a ruler with Ann Coulter on one end and Michael Moore on the other and guesstimating a point somewhere between the two can’t explain personal identification. It certainly doesn’t explain my own identification as a political moderate.
When I fill out the typical political questionnaire, say like the one used by the Washington Post’s political compass, the result is that I am always lumped into the very liberal category. I am in support of gay marriage, I am pro-choice, I think conservation is necessary and I generally believe that the government has an important role to play in society. In that, the compass is right. I am liberal in my personal views and proud of it. What the compass and other questionnaires like it miss are the nuances. Which issues do I prioritize? Is there anything I will not give on? And most important of all, where am I willing to compromise?
The willingness to compromise is one of the moderate’s most important differences from the shrill-voiced single-issue activists who dominate our political landscape. Moderates are willing to listen to the other side and to recognize that even if we think they are wrong — I often do — they still have a perfect right to their opinions, and that those opinions can be just as reasonably held as our own. We believe that in public life, personal politics have to be, excuse the pun, moderated, and the other sides heard.
Thus, moderates see the need to have a strong and viable opposition. This is why I personally breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced last year that the Republican incumbent from Georgia had won re-election, thus preventing a Democratic super-majority. I didn’t do so because of any particular affection for Saxby Chambliss. I don’t know anything about him. I do know that a filibuster proof Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House create an uncompetitive system that is vulnerable to ingrown corruption. An opposition can be counted on to keep watch on those in power, if for no other reason than sheer perverseness.
For this, we moderates are often held in contempt by both sides. We are considered wishy-washy, intellectually weak and ideologically impure. Our own side, whichever one for which we have more affinity, never thinks we are extreme enough or orthodox enough.
Meanwhile, the other side holds us in contempt for that too. If we are fascists to the left, we are Marxists to the right. Neither side is comfortable with us. They would prefer we fall neatly with one side or the other, even if it isn’t their side.
Lester Hunt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, articulated a common reaction to moderates, “A moderate in the political sense,” he wrote, “is simply someone who combines the positions of other, more consistent, people.” We are seen vaguely as traitors, as people who don’t even have the guts to be wrong, people who take the easy way out.
Professor Hunt is entitled to his opinion. So are the others. But I would have to say that being a moderate isn’t remotely easy. It can be a lonely exercise trying to hold the middle ground. It would be, I think, much easier to join one group or the other, to follow an ideology or party platform.
Yet we moderates cannot let ourselves be fazed. We continue to advocate compromise and dialogue. At a time when our world seems to consist of two sides shouting at each other, moderates have never been so needed.