Why Is Fake Moderation an American Imperative?

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column, I ask: "Republicans Will Not Seriously Try to Sell Marco Rubio as a Moderate, Will They?"  In some ways, the column is a companion piece to my various columns and Dorf on Law posts regarding the extremism of the modern Republican Party.  In December 2015, for example, I wrote a series of three Dorf on Law posts in which I puzzled over the thinking of self-described moderate Republican voters.  (The final post, with links to the earlier posts, is here.)  Today's column, however, looks not at what voters are thinking but at the actual substance of Rubio's policy positions.

Those positions are, of course, extreme by any measure.  Even though I allowed myself to go on for 2000 words in that column, I was only able to scratch the surface of Rubio's extremism.  I mentioned his views on abortion, taxes (even more extreme than the rest of his party, which is saying something), immigration (a flirtation with moderation followed by a panicked retreat into xenophobic extremism), marriage equality, and guns.  I did not even have a chance to get into his foreign policy views, or his stances on the many other issues that my intrepid research assistants summarized for me.  The picture is not pretty, and it is certainly not moderate.

One problem with any such discussion, of course, is that defining a word like moderate is so difficult.  If one simply says that a view that is stated by the leaders of a major party is moderate, then the word has no independent meaning at all, at least in the sense of being able to say whether a party has become more or less moderate.  I also discuss the "I'm with stupid" effect of running against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, except that it is more like, "I'm with crazy."  Merely not being as bad as those guys cannot be the definition of moderation, even though moderation is inherently a comparative concept.  I therefore try to define moderation in both a historical and a current sense, allowing us to assess policy positions in the context of what would be historically extreme, or what large numbers of citizens would think is no longer a "reasonable people can disagree" kind of conversation.

In any event, it does not require a serious line-drawing effort to discover that Rubio is far, far on the other side of any definitional distinction between moderate and extreme.  Even so, the most politically salient point of the column was to say, "Just you watch.  Republicans will insist that Rubio is a moderate, and I won't be surprised if the press goes along."

One question that I do not directly address in the column is this: Where does the desire to present extremists as moderates come from?  In one sense, of course, the answer is easy.  Politicians and their handlers know that the public -- and even more, the political press -- thinks of moderation as the gold standard for politicians.  There are boxes into which politicians are placed, and the ones who are placed in the "extreme left" and "extreme right" boxes are automatically deemed unelectable.

Who is placed where is almost completely random.  For example, Mitt Romney went from the "extreme right" box in 2008 to the "moderate right" box in 2012, even though he moved to the right in the meantime.  Bernie Sanders's self-labeling as a Democratic Socialist made it easy for the political press to label him "extreme left," even though his views are anything but extreme.  (On health care, he wants to expand an extremely popular, longstanding system.  On taxes, he wants to return some rates to levels that barely pre-date the internet, and others to rates that prevailed early in the age of the iPhone.  And so on.)  Even so, there apparently needs to be at least one person in each box, and "extreme left" cannot be empty, nor can "moderate right," no matter the underlying reality.

The pundits who view themselves as the gatekeepers of reasonableness then convince everyone that the best outcome is for the moderate left and the moderate right to face off in November.  If that cannot be arranged, then we find people encouraging egomaniacs like former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg to run as a supposedly more reasonable, moderate independent.

Even though all of that is relatively familiar, the self-styled guardians of centrism continue to insist that both parties are flirting with extremism, and that both parties present the voters with moderate alternatives.  Yet my simple answer to the question above -- that politicians try to present themselves as moderates because that is the road to political success with voters and opinion makers -- merely begs for an explanation of why moderation, even insincere moderation, is what people want and expect.

Former Republican Senator and presidential nominee Barry Goldwater famously said in 1964, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."  I disagree with almost everything that Goldwater stood for, and I am glad that he lost to President Johnson in a historic landslide.  Even so, one need not think that Goldwater or his heirs in the conservative movement are wrong because they are immoderate.  They are wrong because they misunderstand economics, because they indulge in paranoid fantasies, because they fetishize the public/private distinction, because they tolerate and even embrace racial injustice, because they defend inherited privilege, and so on.  And I am describing the so-called principled libertarians here, who are actually reasonable on some issues on which the conservative coalition is otherwise quite crazy.

Sometimes, politicians try to invoke something Goldwater-like to defend their positions.  Rubio, for example, does admit that his views on abortion are extreme, but he tries to say that his views on the sanctity of life require him not to moderate his position.  In that, I applaud his honesty.  Even though, as I noted above, Bernie Sanders's views are actually quite moderate, I like most (but not all) of his views because they are sensible, not because they are non-extreme.  Good ideas sometimes require radical breaks with the past.  If someone has an extreme idea that could reduce income inequality, for example, let her present it to us for discussion.

Interestingly, Ted Cruz is the current politician who is trying to present himself as the only true conservative in the field.  He confuses, however, the notion of being principled with the notion of being unwilling to compromise.  One can hold very principled, consistent views as a matter of political philosophy while still achieving the achievable.  The goal should be to win people over to one's point of view, not to punish the country when one's point of view cannot prevail.  Cruz, moreover, is obviously trying to build a cult of personality around himself, where being principled will soon mean simply not daring to disagree with him.  There are good reasons that people despise him.

The default mode in U.S. politics, however, is still to strive to be viewed as the moderate candidate.  The genesis of the public's appetite for moderation, however, still eludes me.  I always hesitate to say things like, "People like moderation because they've been told to like moderation," because that merely relocates the question once again to asking why they have been told to like moderation all along.  But maybe there really is no explanation for where this began, and no need to explain.  "Moderation in all things" and similar aphorisms penetrate our skulls from birth to death, and maybe that is all we need to know.

Yet the title of this post asks: "Why is Fake Moderation an American Imperative?"  Fake.  It would be one thing if we could say that Americans prefer moderate politicians simply because they are conditioned to prefer moderation, but it requires another step to explain why this same public might actually be open to believing that a fraud like Marco Rubio is a moderate.  There really must be a sucker born every minute.  Or at least someone who so completely believes that moderation is good that he convinces himself that an entire political party cannot possibly have left moderation in the dust.