Sunday, April 8, 2018

On Political Moderation (In Moderation)

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
- W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Photo by kevint3141, Wikimedia Commons
If you read the news or follow social media in these polarized times, you might get the impression that moderates are a dying breed. The right marches farther right, the left marches farther left, while the center seems to have vanished entirely. And some people at both ends of the political spectrum think that's fine, because they don't really care for moderates. They think of them as wishy-washy fence-sitters who lack firm convictions. Personally, I admire moderates.

Well, I admire some of them--the ones who believe what they believe out of principle, not apathy or convenience. I'm glad there are still people hovering around the political center. While I'm worried sick about the country descending into Trumpian authoritarianism, I'm equally worried that growing polarization will tear the country apart. If "the center cannot hold", then things really are in danger of falling apart. That's why I believe a country needs a political center, even though I'm a moderately left-leaning independent. In our current situation, where the two sides react to each other by growing farther apart, the growing centrifugal forces could spiral out of control and plunge us into mere anarchy (or authoritarianism if one side wins). So I think we need people who aren't rushing to one side or the other. We need the center to hold.

But I want to be clear about what I mean. I don't admire all moderates and centrists. Some people are moderate just because they don't particularly care about politics, and don't want to rock the boat in one direction or the other. There are politicians who aim for the center just to maximize their popularity. These things aren't particularly admirable. What is admirable, though, is taking a principled, thoughtful stance that happens not to align with the orthodoxy of the right or left. That stance probably isn't in the dead center, either, but it's somewhere between the two ends of the political spectrum, and may therefore be considered "moderate".

And why do I admire people who take such stances? Because it shows independence, and it shows guts. It's easy to adopt the standard liberal or conservative stance to fit in with your peers. It's a lot harder to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions. It's harder intellectually, because it requires that you wrestle with the issues, and it's harder socially, because if you're going your own way, you don't have a comfortable group of like-minded people to hang out and agree with. You don't have a tribe to belong to, and that's hard and lonely. As the poet and children's book author Phyllis McGinley put it:
How comfortable to rest with the safe and armored folk
Congenitally blessed with opinions stout as oak.
Assured that every question one single answer hath,
They keep a good digestion and whistle in their bath. 
[...] But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind.Born nakedly to shiver in the draft of an open mind
People who are somewhere in the vast middle area between the left and right don't have this comfort. What's more, they're often scorned, not just by the other side, but by both sides. As the western writer Elmer Kelton said, the middle "can be the most dangerous place of all. People shoot at you from both sides." As a moderate liberal, I know that's true. People on one side say you're not liberal enough, and people on the other say you're too liberal. Moderates who really are in the center must feel a kind of identity crisis, because these days the right sees them as liberals while the left sees them as conservatives. I suspect people think there's no such thing as a moderate these days. It's an understandable conclusion, but it's not true. According to annual polls by Gallup, the number of moderates has declined a little since the early nineties, but 35% of Americans considered themselves moderates in 2017. That's equal to the percentage of conservatives (35%) and substantially higher than the percentage of liberals (26%). So, there are still a lot of moderates, and I think that's a good thing, because I honestly think they will help hold our country together.

But I don't mean this post as a hymn to political moderation, because I don't think the moderate answer is always the right one. Growing up, I always liked the phrase, "All things in moderation" (I was a strange child). When I got to college, I read about Aristotle's Golden Mean, and about the Taoist idea of balance and harmony between opposing forces--between Yin and Yang. I read about how the Buddha renounced extreme asceticism when when he heard a music teacher tell his student, "If you make the string too tight, it will break. If you make it too loose, it won't play." After that, he formulated his idea of the Middle Path between unhealthy extremes.

All these ideas seemed sensible to me, and still do...for the most part. But later on, I read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. In it, points out the limitations of the Golden Mean/Middle Path by asking if we should aim for moderation when it comes to truth. Think about it--should we seek a middle path between truth and falsehood? Well, of course not. I mean, maybe we shouldn't be so devoted to truth that we go around telling ugly people how ugly they are, but clearly the proper balance between truth and falsehood is much closer to the "truth" end than the "falsehood" end. The right answer isn't in the middle.

But it's not at the absolute extreme, either, and that's common. In many cases, it seems to me that the right answer isn't to be found at one extreme or the other, or in the exact middle. In politics, though, I think the right answer is often to be found somewhere relatively close to the center. Often, but not always. But how do we know when the middle path is really the right one? That's what I want to examine here, by looking at some pros and cons of political moderation. Isn't that just like a moderate to do that?

Points in Favor of Political Moderation
  • Perhaps the main reason I think moderate policies, and politicians who favor them, can be a good thing is that we live in a democratic society. In a properly-functioning democratic society--where everyone across the political spectrum has a voice--most policies will naturally tend toward the center. This isn't necessarily how things go in the United States, but our democracy hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately.
  • A related reason is this: what if neither side is right? What are the chances that, in this particular country, at this particular point in history, one side or the other finally has it all figured out? Quite low, if you ask me. What seems far more likely is that thoughtful people at many points on the political spectrum have part of the truth. What if it's like the old Indian story of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant? In the story, each blind man is wrong about what elephants are like, but if they had talked to each other, they might have realized that they were feeling parts of a greater, more complex truth. The limitation of this analogy, of course, is that our society is full of people who think they are experts on elephants, and haven't even managed to touch the elephant yet. In any case, none of us should be too smug about thinking we see the whole elephant.
  • The philosophers throughout history who sang the praises of moderation and balance really were on to something. In politics as well as life, the answer is more often "some" than "all" or "none". I don't want all the hot sauce in the bottle on my tacos, and I also don't want no hot sauce at all. I want the right amount of hot sauce.
  • The country needs a political center to keep from tearing itself apart. Recently, many on the far right and left seem to want to destroy the system entirely. The far right wants to destroy the "deep state" or New Deal-style government, while the far left can more and more be heard saying they want to destroy capitalism or other systems they see as perpetuating oppression. As a moderate liberal, I think some systems should be destroyed (institutional racism) or reigned in (capitalism), but we need to consider what we will put in their place. What good is reform if we destroy the country in the process? Capitalism has its issues, but it's better than lawlessness or war.
  • Too much power concentrated on either the far right or far left can lead to an erosion of civil liberties. Today we have students at liberal universities shutting down conservative speakers, and conservatives talking about jailing journalists and peaceful protesters. I don't want either of these factions to be unopposed enough to get their way. The so called "Horseshoe theory" posits that people on the far left and the far right can be closer to each other than the center in many ways, such as opposition to the free exchange of ideas. There's something to that, I think. Extremists don't like people disagreeing with them.
  • The left/right political spectrum is arbitrary, anyway. Where did we get the idea that the complexity of politics could be represented in one single dimension? Why can't people lean left on some issues and right on others, or have opinions that don't neatly fit on the spectrum at all? These folks might be better called "independents" than "moderates", but they don't fall neatly into one camp or the other, and here's the thing: we live in a country where you don't have to.

That last point was more an argument for independence than moderation, so maybe that's a sign that I've run out of arguments for moderation, and need to look at arguments against it.
  • Just as the right answer isn't necessarily (or even likely) at one extreme or the other, it isn't necessarily in the center, either. In these polarized times, it's common to hear the false dichotomy fallacy, where people imagine there are only two possible answers to a question. Just yesterday, someone told me that people eventually have to "pick a side" when it comes to politics. Well, that assumes that either one side or the other--either the left or the right--is correct. That's a false dichotomy. Maybe neither side is correct? But there's another fallacy called the middle ground fallacy, which assumes that the right answer must lie in the middle. And that's a faulty assumption, too.
  • What about justice and injustice? Is the middle ground the right place to be there? When he was sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter to people who were telling him his methods were too extreme. He said,"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." Those words stop me in my moderate liberal white dude tracks, because he was right. The Jim Crow laws he was fighting were utterly unjust, and his methods (which were resolutely non-violent) were certainly not too extreme. So, to be a fence-sitter in the face of grave injustice is certainly no virtue. That doesn't mean we have to become extremists--Martin Luther King didn't join the Black Panthers because of his issues with white moderates--but it does mean the moderate answer isn't always the right one.
So where are we? When we add up all the pros and cons, is political moderation a good thing or not? The answer, I think, is "often, but not always". There is certainly a place for moderates our our society, and I think they serve the very important function of keeping us from breaking into two warring camps. Many moderates have principled positions that they've developed by carefully considering points of view on all sides, and they deserve more respect than they are often given. But moderation isn't always the answer, either. Martin Luther King was right to call out the people urging him to be more moderate in the face of a grave injustice. As the cliche goes, "All things in moderation, including moderation." What it comes down to is that there are no easy answers. The left doesn't hold all the answers, the right doesn't hold all the answers, and the center doesn't hold all the answers. None of us knows everything, and many people across the political spectrum have reasonable points to make, and the right to make them. And if saying that makes me sound like a moderate, well, I'm OK with that. 

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