There’s more than one way to skin a moderate


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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41 Responses

  1. Avatar Matthew Schmitz says:

    I thought there was something a little un-American about the Tomasky post that inspired Ross. Wait wait — hear me out! I mean simply that Tomasky seemed to be advocating for a more parliamentary brand of loyalty, which is fair enough considering that he was writing for a foreign rag.Report

  2. Avatar Lev says:

    Nice post.

    I just have a small point: for some politicians, getting and holding power is the sole objective of politics. This especially seems to be present in political scions, like Evan Bayh and G. W. Bush (and even G. H. W. Bush, to some extent). They all entered politics essentially because it was the family business. This is not usually the stuff of which conviction politicians are made, and in the end what results is mostly wasted opportunity. Even Bush 41 had a fair amount of wasted opportunity during his time in office, though he was pretty benign overall.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      Steven Sailer has suggested that the political careers of the elder and younger Bush were a function of a competitiveness that is a family trait. (“If his father owned the biggest junkyard in town, he’d want to own the biggest junkyard in two towns”). Interesting idea.

      You might also consider that some people seek attention and admiration, not power; George Bush – pere seemed to like to have people watch him play tennis. Some others (Patrick Kennedy comes to mind) appear to have gone into politics faux de mieux or out of filial obedience.

      As a rule, though, it is poor form to attempt to divine the motives of people you do not know.Report

  3. Avatar Koz says:

    “My best chance at success in this business is to take sides, go partisan, and let whatever little writing talent I have do the rest. If I really wanted to play it safe, I would ditch my support for gay marriage; I would rally behind our foreign policy; I would run screaming from even the mildest support of any sort of healthcare reform. This would be the safe ground for me as a young conservative writer in today’s world.”

    There’s more than one interesting bit of material in this post, but let’s start with this for now. It’s easy to look at Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh and think that, but I still think that’s a little misguided. Ie, the grass is greener, etc. Stacy McCain is a genuine talent for me, at the very least his enthusiasm is obviously genuine. But he doesn’t give the impression of someone who’s getting rich as a professional right-winger.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      True. Mr. McCain’s vocation is as a newspaper reporter. In 1931, an occupational group similarly situated was that of vaudeville performers. He has six kids so here is hoping he can effect a career change beneficial to all concerned.Report

  4. Avatar Zach says:

    I think this is precisely why we’ve seen the team “realist” used in foreign policy to describe people who don’t easily fit into the saber-rattling or peacenik stereotypes and appear or claim to base their policy preferences on rational analysis & empiricism.

    I guess that’s what we call policy wonks for domestic matters. So you have folks like Wyden/Bennet, Bloomberg, Ryan & Obama to a degree, etc who propose ideas that are likely to work, but also likely to draw political ire. This is in opposition to Bayh and McCain who take positions with clear majority support that are at odds with party orthodoxy, but aren’t particularly likely to do any good or are proposed knowing that they’ll be immediately defeated.

    I doubt, for instance, that a President Bayh or a President Clinton would’ve passed a massive tax cut and been pleased that no one knew about it. Mark Penn would be pitching a fit right now if 95% of people didn’t know their taxes had been cut.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      “Realist” is a school of thought in international political theory, to be contrasted with varieties of “liberal” thought and “radical” thought. Its most notable exponent was Hans Morgenthau.Report

  5. Avatar mike farmer says:

    There are better terms than moderate. Iconoclast, free-thinker.

    The problem with the current, so-called moderates, is they juggle both sides and act as if this is intellectual and thoughtful. Of course, everything is not alway black and white, but every truth is not always in the middle as a mongrel combination of positions. You make a mistake by framing those who have strong ideas and stick to them as taking some easy partisan path — it doesn’t have to be partisan. You can take what many consider extreme views and piss off both parties, because the issues are separate, not a collective set of ideas falling right or left. This is what an independent, free-thinking individual does. A free-thinker is not necessarily a moderate, juggling both sides of every issue, tryin to stay in the middle. A free thinker might be to the extreme of current, popular thought.

    Centrism as a permanent position is actually meaningless — there is not always a reasonable central position — yes, if you can take the best of both sides and come up with something better, then by all means do it, but this is not always desirable — sometimes as honest thinkers, we must make a judgement call and choose a position, even it’s a position that’ not popular with anyone concerned.

    Free, independent thinking is not necesarily moderate — it can be radical.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus says:

    I think writing is a uniquely personal profession- it really is pulling up the muck from your subconscious. Therefore, I think writing things you didn’t believe would alienate you from yourself and make you miserable pretty much full time. It’s interesting too how many blogs I’ve found become unreadable because of the insufferable partisanship. Maybe it is the economic factor- wanting to become a “professional” writer.

    It’s also interesting to me how many people who have contributed to conservative thought weren’t really conservatives. I wouldn’t call Jane Jacobs or Christopher Lasch thoroughgoing conservatives, for instance, but they contributed quite a lot. In all honesty, though, I do think we’ve reached a point in which it’s not possible to contribute very much to our thought as a thoroughgoing liberal or conservative. The internal contradictions of both schools are just too painful.

    Robert Anton Wilson used to cite a zen parable in which we were all looking at the sky through a straw and describing what we see. Thus our “opponents” weren’t so much wrong as simply describing another piece of the picture, and in order to get the most complete image of reality, it behooves us to hear as many of them out as possible.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      I’d also point out E.D. that I’ve been mulling over your thoughts on populism since you wrote them and am going back and forth on posting a response. Not really a critique because I’m actually starting to see what you’re getting at there. Anyway, the point is that I don’t remember ever reading anything by a die hard partisan and actually mulling it over. Most partisan writing is a bit like a big mac- it satisfies a specific urge immediately, but isn’t something you’d think much about afterward!Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      Christopher Lasch, Jane Jacobs, and Wendell Berry would be part of a select few for whom it seems reductionist to apply any sort of shorthand term.Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    On the issue of Bayh specifically he was not a particularily admirable centrist. He didn’t actually have any particular concrete positions. If you were to ask him what his personal positions were he’d give you a lot of generalized fluff. His idea of centrism was to essentially take whatever position his party was taking, jump about ten degrees to the right and advocate for that. So no matter where his party went policy wise he’d be out there dancing to the right of them.

    One thing is for sure, someone must have pissed him off royally because he’s really sticking it to the party with this stunt he’s pulling. They may not even be able to get a candidate in. What a douche.Report

    • Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

      North, I think you’ve made some sage comments re: Bayh and the Democrat Party.
      How bad do you think it is for the commie-Dems? Is Dear Leader killin’ ’em and will he require them to jump off the cliff in terms of his commie-legislation, e.g. HCR, and Crap and Trade, etc.?
      I don’t understand how a party could just collapse like this, though we’ll have to wait to November to take an accurate accounting? Why did this happen?Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I dare say the rumors of collapse are a bit exaggerated. The Dems are being Dems, the fact that they’re kind of two parties squashed together makes them remarkably bipolar. They have neither the small size nor true believer glue of the Republican Party culture to make them toe the line. It is a strength in some ways though certainly a weakness in their current situation where the Republicans are being very firmly held in unified opposition. Is the Republicans weren’t in such lockstep the Dem leadership would have probably told Liberman to jump in the Potomac and just recruited Snow to replace him.

        As to how they got into this mess, they’ve done a horrible job on messaging and campaigning to the public. It’s like after Obama got elected they just went to sleep. Obama’s campaign rhetoric also didn’t help. It seems like the country actually thought that if they elected a different looking politician that he actually could hope and change government and all the messes he inherited from his predecessors (plural, not just Bush Minor) into the great beyond without any pain. Obama’s aloof above it all shtick really hurt him in the legislation department too. If he’d been up to his elbows in HCR from the get go we’d be talking about how Scott Brown was punishment for enacting HCR instead of preventative.

        As to collapse I guess it depends. The Obamites say he’s playing a long game and a lot of insiders can still hear heartbeats out of HCR. I’d say it hinges on that particular piece. If they push it through the House and amend it via reconciliation Obama will solidify his base, loose the independents he was going to lose anyhow and be able to actually campaign on the merits of the bill and push back some of the mischaracterizations of it. Dems loose a bunch of seats but keep majorities in both houses.
        If HCR actually croaks then Republicans will merrily lead Obama around by the nose and end up passing nothing, (because lets face it, they don’t want anything passed under his watch) Obama’s base is going to wake up and realize that hopey-Mc-changepants screwed the pooch on the last two inches of the marathon and there’s going to be one hell of a revolt in his base. Obama either tries to calm his rioting base and loses everything left of TNR or tries to run to the middle and his base stays home en masse. All the people who hate HCR will vote against the Dems anyhow and they won’t even be able to beat back the Republican marketing on it so it’ll be remembered in the worst possible light. Dems probably loose the house and maybe the Senate and you’ll start hearing rumbling of a primary challenge for Obama in 2012.

        Cap and Trade meanwhile is as dead as a nit, if Obama can raise that legislation from the dead you’d better grab for your Bible Bob because it’ll be the second coming. No centrist or neoliberal Democrat is going to vote for that idiocy in this economy so it won’t even get out of committee.Report

  8. Avatar zic says:

    I read almost exclusively conservative writers (probably that is a flaw) and generally agree mostly with conservative lines of thought (or libertarian lines of thought, depending). I want to write for conservative publications. Almost all my contacts in the writing and publishing world are conservatives.

    I would think it a flaw; and one you could easily correct. I don’t read you because you’re in my comfort zone; I read you to challenge my thinking, but I have a high tolerance for risk. I would hope anyone who hopes to influence opinion and policy through the written word would hold the risk of challenging their ideology in high regard — a gift of freedom of speech.

    I suspect that when you finally get around to publishing something based on your conservative beliefs in a liberal forum, you’ll find it much more rewarding. I know my best work came when I dug in and reported on things I disagreed with and challenged my biases to their limits.Report

  9. Moderate is such an awful term really. It’s bland and generally misleading and I’ve been rallying against it for the better part of the year at my own blog and in other locales. My anectdotal experience is that if you scratch the surface of most self-proclaimed moderates you will usually find a mainline conservative that has a few liberal leanings. 9 times out of 10 those liberal positions are of the social variety (gay marriage, abortion, etc). These are the folks that are really abusing the heck out of the ‘moderate’ label because they aren’t really moderate on even a majority of issues. They instead are using it as codespeak for ‘socially-liberal Republican’ because of the hostility towards that position within the party. I’m marginally sympathetic to their plight because 30 years ago they could have just called themselves New England Republicans or Rockefeller Republicans and everyone would have understood and left them alone. Now they get abused. But that’s always the danger when one gives themselves a sub-label within a larger political movement/ideology.

    Occassionally you might have someone like myself that veers a bit leftward on education and others who might head that direction on foreign policy or some other issue. You’ll notice rarely ever do those kinds of conservatives call themselves moderate. Maybe that’s a flaw of the party in that we don’t feel prosecuted the way gay marriage or abortion proponents do. Or maybe we’re just more badass… (I joke,I joke).

    Ideally, I guess the political labels flowchart would look something like this:

    Hard Left – Mainline Left – Moderate Left – Centrist – Moderate Right – Mainline Right – Hard Right

    The trouble is that there are very few real Centrists out there that are sincere and not just playing the triangulation game (*cough* Arlen Specter *cough*). If current polling is to be believed roughly 1/3 of Americans self-identify as Independent. If you ask probing questions of these people you will usually find they are a mixed bag. They are mainline or even hard Right on some issues and mainline or Hard Left on others. They decide the best compromise is to put an (I) after their name and call it a day. I think when you see politicians using the ‘moderate’ label for themselves they are often very similar to those mixed-up Independents but have decided to play the 2-party game.Report

    • Avatar kenB says:

      I think the problem is that we’re actually dealing with two axes but we blend them together. On the one hand, there’s the question of where someone’s political “center of gravity” is located on the scale from left to right; on the other hand, there’s the question of the intensity of someone’s ideological commitments.

      I think it’d be helpful if we stuck to positional terms for the former (e.g. centrist, center-left, far right) and saved the terms “moderate” and “extreme” for the latter. I describe myself as a moderate because I think most of the big political issues don’t really have right answers, just different sets of costs and benefits. I would call someone like Freddie “extreme” regardless of his particular political beliefs, simply because he believes passionately in the utter rightness of his views.Report

      • Ken – I think you’re right that ‘moderate’ can also apply to intensity. The problem is that i think ‘moderates’ would get even more scorn if we shifted in that direction. They are already seen as spineless, mushy, etc by many. Maybe it’s an American thing but we seem to like passion when it comes to just about any professional endeavor, politics being no different.Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I have no idea why “moderate” could possibly be seen as a neutral term.

    “Moderately principled”. See that? That’s a laugh line in a gangster movie. “What do you think about the decision to whack Frankie the Elbow?” “It was moderately principled.”

    I swear. You people are going to make me quote Revelation 3:16 more often than I quote Genesis 3:16.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Where one really gets into the weeds is how any given position can be founded upon either liberal or conservative principle or upon political expediency.

      One could support gay marriage because:
      1) One thinks that the state ought subsidize life partnerships because such are good for society in general and if you want more of a thing, you should subsidize it.
      2) One thinks that people shouldn’t have sex outside of life partnership situations and creation of life partnership situations for gay folks would allow us to yell “put a ring on his damn hand!!!” when we see two guys holding hands in the mall.
      3) Because one is trying to cater to progressives and one knows that people who oppose gay marriage are eventually going to be compared to Bull Connor and you don’t want to be like Robert Byrd with that damn letter thrown in your face every 15 minutes.

      One could oppose it for liberal and conservative and extremely unprincipled reasons as well.

      “Moderate” always rings to me as the exact *OPPOSITE* of principled.Report

      • I agree.

        ‘Moderate’ always strikes me as the preferred label of people who love the idea of bipartisanship and compromise. But what does that get us? Rarely ever does it move the ball at all. It also makes a gravely incorrect assumption, in my opinion, which is that the middle is always the best position. I think there have been a lot of instances where the mainline or even Far Right position is worth fighting for. Likewise at times for the liberal position. Those that think the answers lie on top of the fence are fooling themselves.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Yeah agree for the most part.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        ” “Moderate” always rings to me as the exact *OPPOSITE* of principled.”

        I understand where this feeling comes from. The cliche of the professional politician is the wormy, spineless guy who bends to today’s poll numbers simply to get reelected.

        But in a larger, real-life context, this statement still seems either overly broad or wrong headed or both. At the end of the day, for all of our romantic ideals about what our personal political ideals mean, our democratically elected republic exists to figure out a way that a vast number of people with differing needs, wants and ideals can get along and prosper.

        Lacking the solipsism to believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is the enemy and should be stripped of a voice or power whenever possible, and being willing to compromise to make sure that all parties’ interests are taken into account wherever possible doesn’t strike me as being “unprincipled.” It strikes me as being a grown up.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I don’t believe that people who don’t agree with me are the enemy.

          I just believe that their right to swing their state ends at my nose.Report

    • Avatar Koz says:

      “I have no idea why “moderate” could possibly be seen as a neutral term.”

      Why is that? For me, “moderate” is a neutral term which among other things means that we shouldn’t make a fetish out of being on the safest possible middle ground. So to that extent Ross and Erik are right.

      On the other hand I happen to bear no particular grudges against the Maine twins. As a conservatives, we know they won’t be with us on some very important issues. But, that’s because they are actually on the other side and aren’t acting out of spite. This is in substantial contrast to Arlen Specter, eg, who has made an art form out of being a weasel. All three could legitimately be called moderates, but that does not tell the whole story.Report

  11. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    Well, I don’t think Senator Bayh is a ‘moderate.’ If you check his voting record since Dear Leader’s been on the scene you’ll see that he’s supported the radical Left’s legislative agenda. He’s a commie-Dem and knows the fecal matter is going to hit the fan, so he runs for the hills. He’s known as the “Indiana Slut” by his constituents.Report

  12. Avatar RTod says:

    I am always frustrated that the choice is always between either “True Believers,” who never, ever bend, or those that always take “centrist” positions. What the hell is wrong with a system in which someone can be a true believer but still stand up and say, “This is absolutely not my first, or even second choice. But I have to recognize that in a country of X million people, compromises have to be made to get things done, and in this case I think this is an acceptable compromise for all parties.” That guy would get roasted by everyone; but I would vote for that guy, R or D, in a heartbeat.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:


      You’ve just compromised on slavery in 1850, segregation in 1890, women voting in 1910, back of the bus seating in 1950, and gay marriage in 1990.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        Yeah, but J-Bird, let’s be honest. The vast preponderance of things that congress deals with are not good v. evil issues such as slavery. It’s one thing to say owning a person is inherently wrong, and so I will refuse to compromise. But do you really believe most of what we deal with on a day to day basis falls into that category? Is the question of should tax rates going forward more reflect what they were in the Clinton years, or the Bush II years really the same thing?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          This is why I like Federalism.

          There are a great many things that are not good vs. evil. Let Mississippi be Mississippi, let Maine be Maine, let Montana be Montana.

          The problem comes when you make everything be centralized and you start saying “we need a one size fits all solution to our problem” and you start imposing Mississippi values on Montana and Maine that you have turned a “different strokes for different folks” non-problem into a good vs. evil problem.Report

          • Avatar mike farmer says:

            Amen. I would love to see state competition for the best damn state in the union, according to whatever ideas the people of that state have in mind regarding “best” — as long as they abide by the Constitution. I wouldn’t want to see Idaho sanction love-slaves, but I would like the states to stand up to the federal government and start experimenting with good ideas. Then we can see what works and what doesn’t work — there is some of this now, but with states becoming dependent on the federal government, states will start becoming more and more alike, marching to the orders from central control.Report

          • Avatar RTod says:

            I agree with you about Federalism — but it doesn’t answer my point. If your have state rather than federal bodies make decisions, you still need to compromise, don’t you? Or do you think state’s populations are so homogeneous that there would be no disagreements and therefore no compromise would ever be necessary?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              There would be less absolute need to compromise because we’d have 50 cauldrons and 50 possible places.

              If you don’t like Iowa, you could always move (secede!) to Indiana. Or Arkansas. Or New York. Or California. Or Wyoming. *THAT* could be your compromise. Instead of saying “we need to be more like Michigan!”, you’d have the option of moving to Michigan (you could buy a house for six grand!).

              And this state could have free health care for undocumented migrant workers and that state could have single payer and that other state could rely on employer-provided insurance. Heck, we could do similar with abortion or gay marriage or the death penalty!

              And if you had an issue, a single issue, which would brook no compromise… well, you could move to the state that agreed with you.Report

            • Avatar Kyle says:

              There’s another difference too – at the state level officers and representatives are closer to constituents.

              I’d love to look into this scientifically but it seems I’m more likely to support policies anathema to my neighbors in a different state, than I am my neighbors on the other block.

              Also, if I’m in Michigan, even if I’m not an autoworker, I probably have a better sense of how legal changes that will affect the industry will in turn affect other things (that I may or may not care about) than if I’m in Michigan and spouting off about oil companies based in Louisiana. Obviously it doesn’t mean people have no right to comment on issues but that awareness may affect what policies we support and how stridently.

              In addition to Jay’s point about right of exit…Report

        • Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

          All issues of the polis are predicated on good vs. evil…all!Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Heh, I hadn’t seen that. It makes a good point.

          One thing that I learned early on in marriage: If you constantly compromise, neither of you is getting what you want. Ever.

          Don’t compromise. Do it my way sometimes, do it your way others.Report