American politics has become hyper-polarized in our time. The work of Congress, the news media, and many of the institutions that anchor our civic life have been reduced to diametric opposition, irreconcilable difference, and debates aimed at the destruction of political enemies rather than the development of negotiated pathways to a prosperous future. The most extreme voices on the left and the right seem to be the loudest and the best-funded.
Among the many casualties of this chronic polarization has been the identity of the American moderate. The deafening noise coming from those at the ideological extremes via social media and cable news has drowned out the voices of those who would rather have thoughtful dialogue than simply to win a shouting match. The muck of vitriolic hyperbole that flies back and forth between entrenched partisan combatants has distorted the image of those standing in the middle who, for conscience sake, have not staked out a position on either side. The intense battles between left and right have made the moderate plurality in America come off as ambivalent bystanders; a wavering mass of human assets useful only for rounding out narrow electoral victories on the way to partisan conquest.
These days, the middle is there to be “won”, “moved”, and “persuaded”. But, I think the middle needs to be listened to. I think the best hope for the kind of transformational leadership that can lead this nation beyond the many very real challenges we face is in the middle. And if that sounds ridiculous to you, it may be that you have bought into this distorted view of the American moderate. But before you write off the middle as a source of political revolution, allow me to present five clarifying thoughts that we should keep in mind about the REAL political moderate.
#1: We are not moderated by a lack of passion.
Perhaps the core misconception about political moderates is that we are people who do not have strong convictions about the political issues of the day. The partisans have perfected the art of high, moral language; declaring with vigor the moral rectitude of their positions and condemning their opponents’ policies and personhood in the strongest possible terms. The fact that we don’t think inside the bright-lined boxes drawn by ideological extremists coupled with our inability to find expression on badly slanted cable news programs might suggest a lack of passion in the middle. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
For the most part, political moderates have equally strong views on issues as do partisans and ideological devotees. We did not find ourselves in the middle because we can’t decide whether or not we think locking little brown children in cages is morally right. We have found ourselves caught in the middle of this broader political warfare because we have not allowed our thinking on this issue to dictate our thinking on all other issues.
An analysis conducted by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America, found that among moderate members of the electorate, “few voters hold consistently middle-of-the-road opinions”. Not all members of the “middle” have the same views on every issue. But we support the causes we support with vigor. And when we disagree, we disagree with passion. What keeps us out of the partisan entrenchments is our unwillingness to conflate all political thought into a simplified ideological framework. We’d rather segregate issues and thoughtfully approach each one on its own merits. Sometimes we agree with the left. Sometimes we agree with the right. And yes, many times we end up passionately supporting a view that neither extreme embraces.
But even when we land in the middle of a policy debate, our passion is not middling. Moderates have convictions even if they don’t always fit into a partisan box.
#2: We don’t best identify with where we DO NOT belong.
The loud, partisan voices that dominate the current political landscape have driven home an understanding of moderates as those who do not belong to either extreme. While this description is technically accurate, it is problematic to identify moderates primarily by where we DO NOT belong.
First and foremost, this view subtly promotes the false idea that the political extremes and the parties that have come to represent them are the only (or even the primary) places of belonging in our civil society. That insidious deception is a major part of how the ideological poles keep growing; consuming entire institutions and areas of public life. It is how “Evangelical” has become synonymous with “Republican” and why a Black, 30-something in Chicago is automatically assumed to be a fairly progressive Democrat.
This is a badly distorted view of the world. There are many places of belonging in society that are much more central to our sense of identity. These places of belonging animate the moderate’s political engagement; not our rejection of one political extreme or the other. I do not anchor any significant concept of my identity in the tenants of modern conservatism or progressivism, and I don’t usually reason about politics from either of those prescribed positions. But, I am a father. I am a member of a community here in Chicago. I am a church leader. These are all places of belonging. And they all animate my civic and political engagement. I don’t think about who to vote for as a “non-progressive” or a “non-conservative”, but rather as a parent, a neighbor, and as a shepherd.
The real kicker is that for most of us moderates, a practical, issue-by-issue approach to civic and political thought does lead us to support for one or the other of the major political parties. We are not mindless adherents to an ideology, but we do tend to be conscientious partners for practical purposes. A study from the Pew Research Center showed that only 6 percent of voters are true independents who don’t lean toward one party or the other. So, as both parties race to the extremes in the name of staying true to their “base”, they just might be further alienating a rather dependable block of voters in favor of a rather hard to please fringe element.
Moderates are not the people from “nowhere”. We belong to the families, neighborhoods, churches, civic organizations, and other institutions that make up the beautiful tapestry of our civil society. We just understand that these relationships have a much greater claim on our political reasoning that does any particular partisan ideology.
#3: We are not politically disengaged.
This moderate position is often misunderstood in another important way. Political moderation, many times, is ascribed a sort of anti-definition based upon what moderates do not do. But, being moderate does not at all imply political disengagement. Many moderates are VERY political.
As we established in our first point of discussion, moderates are not moderated by a lack of passion on issues. Moderates have opinions. Moderates vote. Moderates tweet. Moderates get involved with political arguments among friends and family. Moderates are involved across the spectrum of political engagement. One Pew Research Survey found that partisanship is not a real factor when it comes to voter participation. 38% of self-styled conservatives are regular voters, 34% of liberals vote regularly, and 35% of moderates are also regular voters.
Many partisans and devotees to our modern polarized ideologies may fancy “moderate” a pejorative term denoting a general lack of commitment to principles; a condition of sorts caused by civic disinformation and an absence of moral clarity. That is simply NOT the case. Social scientists Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky find that “While liberals think Congressional Democrats are too moderate and conservatives say the same about Congressional Republicans, moderates think both parties are too ideological.” Their research concludes that the defining factor in the moderate point-of-view is not a lack of interest, but a distaste with “ideological wings.” “Moderate voters remain engaged in politics,” they said, “even as they express concerns over the current divisiveness of many political discussions.”
One need not be engaged in extremes in order to be extremely engaged.
#4: We do not mistake nuance for hypocrisy.
Many hyper-partisans can’t fathom a politically engaged moderate. This is due, in large part, to the political moderate’s lack of commitment to political dogma. For too many in our Americans, the goal of political discourse is to defend broad-brush-stroke ideologies rather than to weigh individual issues. Allegiance to the party is paramount. Candidates for elected office increasingly have to pass a kind of ideological purity test to gain acceptance from one extreme or the other (or at least to avoid destruction by them). S/he must not take even one step toward the other side or lend the smallest amount of credence to anything “they” might think, say or do. Otherwise, that politician will be branded a hypocrite...and banished to the middle...with us.
I say this to any politician (or anyone else for that matter) who might be so bold as to break from your ideological fiefdom, “You are more than welcome to walk with us in vast meadowlands of the middle”. Quiet as it is kept, we don’t even expect you to drop your partisan bonafides in order to spend time considering the merits of your opponents’ ideas. Moderates don’t see a willingness to acknowledge the good in someone from a different political party or to call out error in your own as hypocrisy. We see it as the kind of thoughtfulness and nuance that leadership requires.
I would expect that many moderates shook their heads just last week when the President of the United States decided not to attend the funeral or even attend the coffin of Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis as it lay in state at the Capitol. It would not have been lost on anyone that President Trump holds many political views that diverge from those of the late Congressman. But, Mr. Lewis served 17 terms in the United States Congress and was a central figure in one of the most consequential movements in the history of the nation. Surely, the President could have mustered a few words of tribute.
A similar disbelief, I would imagine, came upon us earlier this year when the then frontrunner for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, Senator Bernie Sanders proclaimed that there is no such thing as a pro-life Democrat. Really? Divergence on one issue can immediately expel someone from an entire political party? That is certainly a formula for keeping the party pure. But, it may also contribute to keeping the party free from thoughtful engagement.
At least that’s how we see it in the middle.
To us, the capacity to weigh a counterpoint is a positive attribute. In the middle, we admire a political imagination that can envision a pro-lifer who does not believe in criminalizing abortion or a police protester who still sees a role for law enforcement in the future of American cities. As research suggests, moderates are neither tuned-out or ill-informed. We simply tend to see multiple sides of complex issues. Moderates are not moderates because we choose not to affiliate. But, we do tend to reject political behavior that treats disagreement as disloyalty and nuance as hypocrisy.
#5: Our nation needs us now more than ever.
Everything else I’ve written here is primarily to inform or remind those at either of America’s political poles what it is REALLY like in the middle; to humanize the caricature of the political moderate that persists in too many circles and in too many minds. But for this last point, I’d like to turn and preach to the choir.
Friends, America needs a moderate revolution.
An honest glance across the current social and political landscape will testify to the fact that things in this country are not well. We are facing the greatest public health crisis of our time. The American economy is in freefall. A long-overdue reckoning with racial violence and police corruption is taking place in our streets, churches, and corporations. And everyday the global community grows a little less dependent upon and a little less enamored with these United States of America.
In the midst of all of this chaos, political polarization has rendered our government unable to function, sometimes in the simplest ways. Neither the progressive purists or the conservative devotees can offer a true and compelling vision for the future. These days, the rhetoric coming from either side is much more focused on ridding the world of those who disagree with them than it is on building a future with the necessary conditions for our people to flourish and thrive in a morally righteous and socially just America. And questions about the future have turned to if, not how this union will last.
Everyday in the Congress and in the White House, on cable news and across the Twitterverse the people on the extremes are screaming as loudly as they can a false promise to America, “Join us in vanquishing the ‘others’ and we shall all be free”.
And that is where the moderates come in. The moderates are the prophets of the day. We are not convinced by either of these polarized super-movements. We know that the progressive promise and the conservative dream must work together and moderate one another order for our democracy to long endure. We understand that compromise is not about giving up your values, but rather finding the virtue in the positions of those on the other side of the argument. In the middle, there is a desire to lift both sides up rather than tear one side down.
But, we can no longer yield the floor to the loud extremist. It is time to organize the middle.
In every dark hour our nation has ever faced, courageous men and women have stepped forward who dared to put their bodies, their fortunes, and their futures on the line for the greater good of the nation; from the revolutionary colonists, to indefatigable abolitionists, to the freedom marchers of the Civil Rights movement, and so many more. I believe that this hour calls for moderates.
Yes, in the midst of this “cancel culture”, intellectual honesty and moral clarity could cost us severely. Just consider that a sizable majority of Americans are currently afraid to even talk about their political views because they fear some sort of retribution. But, what if God has called us for this hour, for just this purpose? The inner-city, conservative-leaning, Black woman...the justice-involved, evangelical theology professor...those who can move freely between the two ends of the spectrum as a friend and call to account both sides as a brother or sister.
If it is the case that we have been fitted for this moment in America (which is what the research suggests and what my spirit testifies), then each of us moderates need to return to point number one and tap into the compassion and conviction that has carved out for us this peculiar moderate space. Because it is time for us to be visible and vocal at every level of society and government; no matter what the cost.
America needs the middle. In an age dominated by extremes that are completely devoted to destroying their enemies, our nation is desperate for people who have a moderation anchored in unshakable values...because that is what it will take to build the future.
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