Thursday, August 31, 2006

What the hell is a moderate?

I have a thing against moderates, in part because I don't understand how one could be anything other than a flaming liberal, but in larger part because I don't know what a moderate actually is.

Perhaps most predominantly, self-described moderates see themselves as free thinkers, unbound by a political party and its dogmatic platform. Is a moderate anyone who devises opinions on individual issues independent of a party? That makes me a moderate, which is like saying Liberace was on the fence about his sexuality. No one with a brain agrees entirely with one party's platform.

Are moderates people with both "left" and "right" views? I'm one of those, too, then, to a minor extent. (Don't get me started on immigration policy.)

Does a moderate look at what Democrats say, look at what Republicans say, and choose to agree with one party half the time and the other party the other half? Or does he hold an opinion on each issue that's a square compromise of both parties' platforms? Is that even possible?

Along those lines, can we use "moderate" and "centrist" interchangibly? Of course I would argue that the political spectrum is in fact a political Cartesian plane or even a three-dimensional (or eight-dimensional) political sphere, so there is no such thing as a center position, thus no such thing as a centrist. So I'll ask this, too: What the hell is a centrist?

Maybe "moderate" has been confused with "willing to work toward bipartisanship." Somehow the ability to compromise has been construed into its own set of political beliefs.

Or maybe moderates just, more often than not, adhere to inoffensive beliefs. That's why everyone wants to pretend to be one.

Though I don't have any substantial evidence to support my hunch, I sometimes feel that moderates go out of their way to be moderate; they enjoy moderation for moderation's sake. They might agree with a more radically-leaning view at first, but, just to be a good sport, they give that cozy middle a test drive instead.

The biggest problem with moderatism, though, is that, rather than breaking down the partisanism and devisiveness of the extremes, it simply accepts that there are two sides to every story, and that both sides probably have some merit. What this attitude fails to address is that seeing the world as a dichotomous polarity is both inaccurate and ineffecient. Instead of refusing to recognize the value of radicalism, it validates it by sitting smugly in the middle and pretending to satisfy both sides. It seems a little counter-productive.

Ultimately the word "moderate" is substantively meaningless and usually an attractive cover for being apolitical, nonconfrontational, or a panderer.


Thinker said...

As far as I can tell, those calling themselves moderates are ones looking for a label that does well in focus groups.

Paul said...

I think you're definitely right about many "moderates" claiming the title because they "enjoy moderation for moderation's sake"; I think it makes them feel fair-minded. Sort of a variant on the "Aren't I great for having a black/gay/poor/HIV-positive friend?" theme.

I also think people are often labeled as moderate in virtue of their lack of conviction, or at least the appearance of it. You're too ill-informed to know where to stand on an issue? You're a moderate! You don't care enough about your position to be energized or motivated by it? You're a moderate!

If politically passionate people make you uncomfortable, you might be a moderate.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I once heard sommeone try to define moderate as in "moderate tone". Meaning, I suppose, someone who comes to his positions via thought instead of just following partisan dogma. Or maybe he meant someone who keeps a moderate tone when discussing politics. Either way, trying to define the word that way puts you in a losing battles against the English lanauge.

I find it clearer to define moderate as "someone who advocates incremental change". In a way I suppose that's just "procedural conservatism".

Aaron said...

Since again I'm the abstract "he" that Tommaso is quoting and since this very question was raised on TPL a few weeks back, a few points:

1. "Moderate" is a term that I might self-apply out of contrast: I am neither a flaming liberal nor a curmudgeonly conservative (though I definitely trend towards the former rather than the latter). If we need a positive definition of the word, I'd say that moderates are more likely to believe not in some glacial pace for government function but rather in a third way between the two established parties. "Centrist" is close, but probably less likely to put a premium on reasonableness.

2. It's definitely a word that gets misapplied to mean all sorts of things, including many of the ideas that you've listed. My candidate for most egregious misuse is as a synonym for "maverick." John McCain is really only one of these two terms.

3. That said, the term is very context-dependent. Somebody who considers him/herself a moderate in Washington D.C. would probably be considered a right-winger in Berkeley.

4. For that reason, "moderate" is not the term that I would personally use to describe myself politically -- actually it's not even in the top 5 -- and I suspect that people who rush to describe themselves as capital-M Moderates are indeed just trying to focus-test well.

(5. Tom, what's the point of asking to narrow a definition if you're just going to say that proposing anything other than the most commonly-used one is futile anyway?)

Aaron said...

Also, for the record, you can do this exercise with most political descriptors. What does it mean to be a "liberal" or a "conservative," anyway?

Aaron said...

Also, one of the great things about being back in school is that I have access to the OED again:

Moderate, n.


2. a. Of a person, action, trait, etc.: exhibiting or acting with moderation; characterized by restraint in conduct or expression; temperate.
In contexts relating to alcoholic drink: spec. characterized by moderation; (of a person) not teetotal but not indulging to excess.

b. Of persons or their opinions: not strongly partisan; not radical or extreme. (Chiefly in context of politics or religion.)

c. spec. Now usu. in form Moderate. Designating, belonging to, or characteristic of any of various political or ecclesiastical parties regarded as holding moderate views.

Obviously, I think that 2b is the most useful definition.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Look, you can define a term however you want. Define moderate to mean "person who likes ice-cream" if you want. But given a specific criteria - say, definitions which will help me communicate my ideas better – it can be a bad definition.

My criteria are usually a balancing act between "what people understand when I say it" and "what helps us think more clearly". So for example, regardless of how I define communism, I’ll be misunderstood if I define it in a way that excludes Soviet Russia. That’s the “understanding” criteria. On the other hand, if I define communism as “an oppressive system run by leftists” that won’t help me think about the subject clearly.

Now, that being said, there’s nothing universal about my criteria. You once explained a criteria for the true definition of “tragedy” that seemed to draw on how ancient Greeks used the word. In context, that’s certainly a useful definition for understanding the Greek plays.

So in conclusion, I feel that “moderate = person who comes to his/her opinions out of solemn contemplation away from the maddening crowd of partisanship” fails my criteria. It’s not a definition that fits with how most people use moderate. It’s not a definition that helps me understand politics better.

Aaron said...

1. "Madding" crowd.

2. My point about tragedy was actually the exact opposite: that Aristotle's definition poorly explained what "tragedy" actually is* and that it was therefore a good example about how definitions do and should evolve through time. Let's not forget that definitions are composed of words, too.

3. (Non-)coincidentally, the definition that you provide doesn't really gibe with my definition of moderation, either. I'm hardly arguing for philosophical detachment; I'm saying that one of the prerequisites to moderation is an emphasis on positive rather than normative evaluation.

* For the record: "tragedy," "genius," "insanity" and "evil" are all very unique words that don't do what words usually do: map concepts to objects. All four instead denote a failure of understanding, i.e. when you call something "evil," you are really saying that "this so violates my ethical framework that it is beyond my comprehension." "Tragedy" has a particularly long history of evolving definitions, stretching back to the Greeks.

Aaron said...

Also, happy birthday you argumentative bastard.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Thanks buddy.

So... What's the difference between positive and normative evaluation? I'm not asking to be coy. I really don't know how you're using those terms.

Aaron said...

They're terms that we've been throwing around in public policy class: normative means attached to ideological principle, positive means strictly descriptive; it's the difference between "is" and "ought to be".