“M” is for “Moderate”

Published on U.S. Election Day, November 7, 2023


2016 US presidential election results by county.
Source: Flickr / McCaulys-corner 1

I. Shout Out

II. Moderation and Temperance

III. Left, Right, Center, and Change

IV. Hyperpartisanship

V. Canons to Consider

VI. Conclusion

VII. Citations

I. Shout Out

I dedicate this essay to my fellow Americans on our (off-year) Election Day, 2023.  If you wish that Americans would try to understand each other better, or at least co-exist with better grace and humor, I invite you to my Facebook group Let US Unite.

II. Moderation and Temperance

As far back as we can trace written literature, we find philosophers encouraging us to be moderate.  Confucians formulated a “Doctrine of the Mean” while the Buddha advocated a “Middle Path” between avarice and asceticism.  For classic Greek philosophers, moderation was a virtue, a balance between passions and reasoning.  The Bible and Qur’an are replete with messages about temperance and self-restraint.

We all want what’s good for ourselves.  Every person deserves comfort and the chance to pursue dreams.  But almost any good thing can become too much of a good thing.  Addiction is the desire for more, more, more immediate pleasure, no matter the cost.  I’m sure you’ve known people who have more money, influence, or free time than they can handle responsibly.  Plato warned the first democracies about the downsides of excessive freedom. 2 Even today’s noblest aspirations, like wealth equity, could be overdone.  We need some concentrations of wealth to produce the homes, cars, grocery stores, and electronics that we ordinary people love.    

Today, we often speak of “moderate” politics in a seemingly different context.  At its core, though, it’s the same idea.  Moderation means seeking just the right amount of what we need, not too little or too much.  In the 21st century, two of the most important political needs to be moderated are modernization and partisan pride.  

III. Left, Right, Center, and Change

Today’s post-Enlightenment “left and right” / “blue and red” politics originated in a setting of rapid social flux and revolutions.  It was soon followed by the Industrial Revolution, which led to a whirlwind world of unprecedented changes.  It is no wonder that people have diverse and emotional responses to themes of change over time, which are now woven into the identities of major political parties.  Although the left is often labeled as “liberal”, I find the term “progressive” to be a more apt counterbalance to “conservative” on this spectrum, which I model below.  We can use the same diagram to contrast moderate with far.

Every complex real-life issue has legitimate progressive and conservative concerns.  A progressive idea addresses present problems and a search for solutions.  A conservative counterbalance considers risks and the effects of rapid change.  Change always takes us into unknown territory, so it usually has consequences, both anticipated and unanticipated.  A moderate discussion will account for the costs and benefits of stasis as well as alternatives and transitions.

In this sense, the adjectives conservative and progressive can be applied to ideas as well as to people.  Conservative and progressive concerns can co-exist in the same mind.  In fact, about half of Americans hold “mixed” political opinions. 3 We net-moderates may be the true silent majority!  Open minds can balance conservative and progressive factors to find moderate solutions, heeding principles like: 

Big problems call for change; big changes call for caution.

Whatever your political persuasion, you can probably think of problems that have resulted from ignoring one or both sides of this maxim.  When the world was ruled by a few thousand kings, some of humanity’s worst problems just kept getting worse and worse for millennia:  slavery, mass poverty, war, the list goes on.  But some changes – even urgently needed ones – had disastrous consequences when made too abruptly (French Revolution, anyone?)

People who lose sight of this balance drift into radicalism and extremism.  Political activists tend to have worldviews that cluster consistently left or right, 4 embodying the tail ends of the spectrum much more personally and visibly than the theoretical middle ground.  

Lester the Far Leftie is angry about the injustices of the past and present.  He’s impatient for change.  “The whole system is unfair!” he cries.  “We need to tear it all down and build new socio-politico-economic institutions from the ground up!”. 5 I appreciate his idealism, but no system is perfect or ever will be.  Has Leftie thought through a replacement system?  Are we prepared to confront its new imperfections?  And what about the millions of lives that might be disrupted by Lester’s social reconstruction project?

Rita the far Rightie is afraid of the future. 6 “Things (that I like) are this way because they are meant to be this way.  We shouldn’t go changing them or even questioning them!”  I agree that we don’t need to fix things that aren’t broken.  But hey, time flows and changes grow.  Sometimes, old traditions need updates in a modernizing world.  Furthermore, the situations that favor Rita might come at high costs to others.

In terms of social dynamics, I hypothesize an evolutionary pressure toward moderate long-term change.  Radical ideas are unstable by nature.  Many come and go quickly or never catch on broadly.  The harder they are pressed, the more strongly they provoke pushback.  But cultures that adapt slowly will eventually be influenced by those that modernize more successfully.  Whether you are trying to speed up or slow down the natural moderate churn of change, you are probably wasting energy on the fight.   

IV. Hyperpartisanship

Just as ideas and beliefs can be moderate or extreme, so can the conviction with which people hold them.  Ideas lie on a “substantive” or “objective” spectrum from one extreme to the other.  People express their beliefs along a “procedural” or “subjective” dimension from moderation to radicalism. 

Beliefs and value systems take on a social significance of their own as they are associated with various identities and political parties.  In other words, people often hold beliefs simply because they are prescribed by their in-group. 7 When these ideas become personal, just like religious convictions, they become off limits for rational discussion.  That’s why I hyphenate “politico-religious” as the opposite of AWESOME.          

Even though right and left extremists are far apart on substance, they share many procedural similarities.  Here are some traits of extremism that are exhibited on the left and the right.

  • Perceptions of being victimized, threatened, or imposed upon 8
  • A desire to impose values on others 9
  • Preoccupation with party-line issues or themes, 10 and a sense of superiority over others who are not similarly preoccupied 11
  • Idealization of a mythical past or future 12
  • Heavy reliance on talking points 13
  • Authoritarianism: justifying exceptions or excuses to empower the party or its leaders over others 14

This is a good personality test.  If you cannot recognize any of these tendencies in your own party, then you might be on the far end! 15

Radicals on either side are motivated by the “I’m right, you’re wrong!” game.  The script is formulaic: 

The problem is the people who disagree with me.

They are either immoral or imbecilic! 16

If only we could show them how wrong they are and they’d do things the right way, the world would be perfect!

A. B.S. politics

B. The PR spin propeller

C. The case and place for moderation

A. B.S. politics

Sometimes, the point of contention is not even a matter of disagreement, but of caring passionately about different issues.  To Rita, anyone who cares more about wealth inequality than welfare fraud or border security must be an “unpatriotic SOCIALIST!”  From Lester’s perspective, Rita is completely oblivious to systemic racism and must be a “neo-Nazi BIGOT!”  These are the stereotypical aspersions that the left and right cast at each other constantly, each epithet conflated with the historical dictators who have taken their parties to violent extremes. 

When we see through B.S. Politics, we identify the far left as those who are unreasonably prejudiced against the right, and vice versa.  Each side attributes the worst imaginable evil (according to its own value system) to the other as a justification for animosity. 

Fear speech is hate speech!

Extremists disguise their prejudices by telling you why you should fear or hate the other side. 

B. The PR spin propeller

If it feels like we’re going around in circles, it’s a cycle that I call the PR Spin Propeller. 

Prejudice presents pretenses

Hate speech is usually not as direct as, “I hate them,” because people rarely admit hatred in their own heart.  Instead, they project it outward and blame the victims.  The sentiment is usually expressed as, “We should fear them, because they hate us.” 

Pretenses provoke propaganda

Stereotypes, slanted media, and evidence filtering make juicy illustrations for an extremist to convince other people of her righteousness:  “See?!  They’re coming after your children!” 

Propaganda propagates prejudice

When more people buy into the propaganda, they come into the situation biased from the start, and the cycle starts all over again

C. The case and place for moderation

A modest amount of partisan variety and debate is a great thing.  Parties organize ordinary people who have something in common, whether it be an ethnic identity or a policy vision.  It’s healthy to have alternatives; single-party rule is usually not a good sign. 

The problem with partisan hubris is that it creates a false priority – “Our side must win.” 17 Politics gets dominated by games purporting to prove which party is the “good guys”.  Prejudices, pretenses, and propaganda spin out of control while concern for the common good becomes secondary.

In 21st century America, the call to moderation is an appeal to reason, civility, and efficiency of government.  In different times or places, the stakes may be much higher.  When partisans grow sufficiently antagonized, both sides become likelier to drift toward authoritarianism or even violence.  They become attracted to, and vulnerable to manipulation by, strongman leaders who promise to carry their side to victory.  The left and right both have notorious examples, including the archetypes Stalin and Hitler.  We like to believe that republics are too robust to be captured in this way anymore, but at the same time, parties seem to find absolute power irresistible when it’s on their side.  Many experts are concerned that several parties, including some in control of national governments, are becoming more authoritarian. 18

V. Canons to Consider

Now that we have discussed radicalism and the case for moderation, we need some guidelines for living moderately.  Our society is inundated with competing conservative and progressive principles.  Staking out the middle ground is so rare and challenging that some political scientists deny that it exists! 19 I humbly propose a few principles for people and peoples to live moderately.     

I’ll explain my position and respect yours

Have you ever really wanted to change someone’s mind?  Perhaps you argued, ranted, and pointed out the errors of their stupid ways.  Did it work?  Or did they dig in and fight back?  Have you ever tried the opposite approach?  Leading by example, you are much more likely to attract people to your point of view than by forcing them to it.  If you show a degree of open-mindedness to someone else’s sensitivities, you’ll probably find that they’ll reciprocate.  People are mirrors.  Reveal the side that you want reflected to you.

Read the room

Sometimes I’m still surprised by how stubbornly political parties push their pet projects against all odds.  Don’t get me wrong.  Your party’s dream vision might be a wonderful idea.  Public health care, balanced budgets:  you might be right about how important these are.  But democracy doesn’t mean always doing what’s right.  It means doing what a majority is willing and ready to do.  Right or wrong, sometimes we must read the room to understand what our realistic options are.        

It’s more complicated than that     

Popular rule has some unfortunate corollaries.  To win office, a political candidate only has to appeal to a larger audience than her competitor.  To appeal to the broadest audience, she must keep her messages simple and emotionally satisfying.  We end up voting on cartoon versions of reality.  I hope you know better by now.  Overly simplified solutions can obfuscate systemic and multi-faceted problems. 20 For instance, Americans love to blame high gas prices on the “other” party’s president.  But the price of gasoline is naturally volatile, dependent on many unpredictable factors in the global oil market.  It also has a lot to do with our own demand for it. 21

Save your emotions for the specifics

Emotions, like energy, have the potential to be channeled constructively or released destructively.  Fear, anger, and frustration – when focused like a laser beam on their true sources – motivate us to address root causes and solve problems.  When anger doesn’t have a clear target, it has a way of spreading like fire and burning down the house.  Sometimes, we rage at impossibly nebulous foes like injustice, globalists, or even them.  Abstract fear and anger are wasted energy.  Spiral inward on your discontent.  Try to verbalize who or what is upsetting you and then see if you can do something about it.  Check in with yourself:  is it really your grievance?  Some people are masterful at convincing us to hate their enemies. 

Make policies where they are least controversial

For decades, the federal US government has struggled in vain to find a consensus on hot-button issues like abortion and personal gun regulation.  These issues have no simple “right” answers.  They are matters of personal disposition, and a nation is far too large and heterogenous to be united in disposition.  Now these issues have achieved outsized influence because the political parties exploit them for emotional appeals to voters.  Each state or county would find it much easier to reach a local consensus where people are clustered by ideology. 

Keep laws fresh

It is difficult to predict how society will change.  Laws that make sense for the moment might become antiquated and counterproductive in a century or two.  We need not commit to laws forever.  We can keep legislation current with expiration dates and revisitation / renewal.

Experiment and compare

A good way to balance progress with risk is to take bold leaps on a small scale.  Small institutions like cities and schools make good social laboratories.  We can use them to test ideas before committing entire nations to risky directions.  We can compare policies from different cities or countries around the world and see what works best.  Urban planners experiment with policies in minimum wage, housing, policing, transportation, and nutrition. 22 Other fascinating experiments include decentralized governance – both online 23 and within a state 24 – and Alaska’s surprisingly socialist public distribution of oil revenues. 25

Use the right institutions for the job

Profitable businesses are great at identifying markets and their needs, reaching customers at minimal cost, and generating wealth.  Governments are better suited for other tasks like providing non-profitable public goods or regulating health and safety.  Non-profit charities are nimble organizations for addressing specific interests.  We should expect neither governments nor free markets to handle all responsibilities.  A coordinated web of institutions seems to get the job done best. 26

Responsibility is the price of freedom

I like to imagine a marketplace where people exchange tokens of freedom for tokens of responsibility.  Government aid should come with reasonable strings attached to make sure it reaches the right people for the right reasons.  Although registries often serve useful purposes, like identifying criminals, mandatory enrollment can be problematic.  A moderate alternative is an opt-in system with perks.  When I fly, I gladly enroll as a “Known Traveler”, sacrificing some privacy for convenience.  It’s easy to imagine similar programs, like firearm discounts for those who voluntarily register their guns, or childcare allowances for couples who opt into parental training or assignment to a social worker.

A social contract cuts both ways.  A government has certain rights of authority over its people, provided that it acts for the common good and not for the personal benefit of officeholders.  Legislation could have built-in redress.  For instance, a government that taxes fossil fuels and subsidizes renewable energy ought to devote some of its budget to career-transition training for miners.

VI. Conclusion

People disagree.  The world changes.  We can’t escape constant imperfection or occasional tragedy.  The question is, how shall we respond? 

One option is to divide into hostile camps and blame each other.  We can be angry at the past or afraid of the future.  We can manufacture indignation at everything the other side does until we spend more time arguing about prejudicial pretenses than about data, creative solutions, and the common good. 27 That doesn’t sound like the best plan to me, but it sure sounds familiar.

Is there a viable alternative? 

A moderate has the audacity to suggest that we ought to keep our eye on real issues.  A moderate looks for common interests and recognizes legitimate conflicting interests.  A moderate doesn’t frame the world as an Olympian struggle of good vs. evil, enlightened vs. stupid, or bigots vs. socialists.   

I know it can be hard to behave moderately with radicals. The cycle works both ways.  Your opponents will respond to radicalism with radicalism.  But they will also respond to moderation with moderation.  Who will be brave enough to take the first step?   

VII. Citations

  1. Map by Flickr user McCauleys-corner, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED license, accessed 10/27/23.
  2. Plato, Republic Book VIII, Section 564a, see e.g. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6, translated by Paul Shorey (1969), Harvard University Press.
  3. Michael Dimock et al., “Political Polarization in the American Public” (6/12/2014), Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/ .  See “Distribution of the Ideological Consistency Scale” on p. 8 of the online summary.
  4. A classic paper in this field is Philip Converse, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (1964).  Originally published in David Apter, ed., Ideology and Discontent.  Full copy of Converse’s paper available at Critical Review, 18:1-3, 1-74, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08913810608443650 (accessed 11/01/23).  Corroborated more recently by Dimock et al., ibid; see the very last “Key Shareable Finding” on p. 11 of the Pew report’s online summary.
  5. Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America, Cambridge University Press (2015), Kindle eBook edition, location 234.
  6. Agreed by John Feffer, Right Across the World, Pluto Press (2021), Kindle eBook edition location 460.
  7. Nolan McCarty, “What we know and do not know about our polarized politics”, Chapter 1 in Daniel J. Hopkins and John Sides, eds., Political Polarization in American Politics, Bloomsbury, Kindle eBook edition locations 182-183.
  8. Quassim Cassam, Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis, Routledge (2022), Kindle eBook edition locations 607-612.
  9. Ibid, locations 848-854.
  10. Ibid, locations 223-224.
  11. Kaitlin Toner et al., “Feeling Superior is a Bipartison Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority”, Psychological Science 24:12 (10/04/2013), 2454-2462,   https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797613494848 (accessed 11/03/13).
  12. Cassam, op. cit., locations 638-639.
  13. Alex Marland and Angelia Wagner, “Scripted Messengers:  How Party Discipline and Branding Turn Election Candidates and Legislators into Brand Ambassadors”, Journal of Political Marketing 19(7):1-20 (8/28/2019), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15377857.2019.1658022 (accessed and saved 11/04/23).
  14. Thomas H. Costello et al., “Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left-Wing Authoritarianism”, PsyArXiv (5/11/2020), https://osf.io/preprints/psyarxiv/3nprq/ (accessed and saved 11/04/23).
  15. Agreed by J.M. Berger, Extremism, MIT Press (2018), Amazon Kindle edition, location 126.
  16. Carroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley, and Nida Asheer, “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal”, Pew Research Center (10/10/2019), https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/how-partisans-view-each-other/ .  See p. 3 of the online summary.  Republicans and Democrats view each other as more “immoral” or “unintelligent” than other Americans in great numbers, as well as other descriptors.
  17. Agreed by Jason Altmire, Dead Center, Sunbury Press (2017), Kindle eBook edition locations 148-150.
  18. Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue (ed)., Democracies Divided, Brookings Institution Press (2019).
  19. e.g. Lee Drutman, “The Moderate Middle is a Myth”, Five Thirty Eight (9/24/2019), https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-moderate-middle-is-a-myth/ (accessed and saved 11/01/23).
  20. Agreed by Hans Rosling, Factfulness, Flatiron Books (2018), Kindle ebook edition p. 221
  21. Jeff Lenard, “Does the President Control Gas Prices?” NACS (5/03/2023), https://www.convenience.org/Media/conveniencecorner/Does-the-President-Control-Gas-Prices (accessed and saved 10/31/23).
  22. Sasha Abramsky, “Ten Urban Experiments that Your City Should Adopt,” The Nation (3/04/2015), https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/ten-urban-experiments-your-city-should-adopt/ (accessed and saved 10/19/23).
  23. Ellie Rennie and Jason Potts, “The DAO:  a radical experiment that could be the future of decentralized governance”, The Conversation (5/10/2016), https://theconversation.com/the-dao-a-radical-experiment-that-could-be-the-future-of-decentralised-governance-59082 (accessed and saved 10/19/23).
  24. Millenium Partners, “Building Nunavut through Decentralization:  Evaluation Report”, Government of Nunavut (February 2002),  https://assembly.nu.ca/library/GNedocs/2002/000099-e.pdf (accessed 11/03/23).
  25. Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, https://apfc.org/ (accessed 11/03/23).
  26. William D. Eggers and Paul MacMillan, The Solution Revolution, Harvard Business Review Press (2013).
  27. Agreed by James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 10, 7th paragraph.  See a copy at the U.S. Library of Congress, https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-1-10#s-lg-box-wrapper-25493273