The Moderation Game

by Neil H. Buchanan

All hail the moderate politician!  She or he is unwilling to heed the siren call of extremism, content to understand that the best policies are in the middle of the road and that people on both sides of the aisle are too tempted to ignore the wisdom of the ages.  What reasonable person could disagree?

This all sounds good, and the truth is that being willing to compromise is necessary for political progress.  The enduring problem is that it is far too easy to define moderation as "something between what the two parties are doing," no matter what those parties are actually doing.  Even worse, some people are even implicitly defining moderation as "the halfway point between actual Republican extremists and the mildly left-leaning Democrats who are wrongly thought of as those Republicans’ mirror images."

This column is, however, not a call for Democrats to become as extreme as Republicans.  Instead, the imperative is for Democrats to embrace and glorify the virtues of moderation -- and then to point out that they have in fact been the avatars of moderation and compromise all along.  This argument is, of course, utterly at odds with the mythology of current American political commentary.  It is, however, demonstrably true.

Before the election, many prominent conservative commentators (but very few Republican officeholders) broke from the unmistakable right-wing extremism that Donald Trump represented.  Had the election gone the way that they expected, those commentators would now be earnestly telling their defeated comrades to reject the Republicans' scorched-earth policies of the Obama era, to rein in the zealots and the hyperpartisan nihilists in Congress and the state legislatures, and to embrace compromise.

With the election turning out as it did, however, the never-Trump conservatives had to decide how to react.  This is not the I-told-you-so moment that they anticipated, so where did they go as a first refuge?   They attacked the Democrats for being immoderate, of course!

Take two of the never-Trump pundits who are publish regularly on the op-ed page of The New York Times, David Brooks and Peter Wehner.  In some ways, it is unfair to Wehner to lump the two together, because his writing reflects a depth of analysis and a seriousness that Brooks (notwithstanding his pretensions) has never come close to achieving.

Even so, both men provided frequent and passionate conservative voices in opposition to Trump prior to November 8, 2016.  And both men, all too predictably, have decided that even in this new era of one-party rule by emboldened radical conservatives, the search for fake moderation requires them to criticize Democrats, too.

In other words, even when the two sides could not be more different in their approaches to politics and policy, and even as Trump's presidency threatens the very foundations of constitutional democracy, false equivalence is again the order of the day.

Brooks was less subtle about it, perhaps due to simple muscle memory.  Four days after the election, he was warning the Democrats not to respond to Trump's ascension by listening to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  Why?
"The coming Sanders-Warren party will advocate proposals that help communities with early education programs and the like, but that party will close off trade, withdraw from the world, close off integration with hyper-race-conscious categories and close off debate with political correctness."
I have listened carefully to what Sanders and Warren have said, and there is nothing in Brooks' description that even comes close to accurately describing their views.  He is, if you will, immoderately exaggerating and distorting their views to make them seem to be extremists.

Would the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party "close off trade"?  Sanders has criticized trade deals, but he also knows (as Trump does not) that you cannot simply tear up trade deals and pretend it is the 1950's again.  Being in favor of different trade deals does not equate to being against trade.

What about "hyper-race-conscious categories" and shutting people down with "political correctness"?  Perhaps Brooks saw a report on Fox News that distorted a campus protest or the Black Lives Matter movement and decided that liberals are doing things that they are not in fact doing.  Because terms like political correctness are so usefully vague, Brooks can hurl that accusation with abandon.

Interestingly, however, Brooks is the one who is shutting down the debate, because his formulation makes it all too easy for him to respond to any liberal argument by saying, "Oh, that's just so much political correctness."  And any concern about, say, the racial aspects of poverty is similarly easy to deflect as an attempt to "close off integration with hyper-race-conscious categories."

Against Brooks's utter distortion of what liberals want to do, what is his ideal alternative?  He claims that we need a third party, a "compassionate globalist party" that would respond to dislocations of globalization by "offering programs to rebuild community, foster economic security and boost mobility" and "integrate the white working class and minority groups by emphasizing that we are all part of a single American idea."

Sounds great.  It also sounds a lot like what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Sanders-Warren wing of the party have all been advocating for years.  No, they do not agree with each other about all of the details of various trade deals, but that is because "free trade" is not a binary concept.

It is, in fact, simplistic and wrong to describe people like Sanders as opposing free trade, because there are many different ways to set up trade rules that would all allow international trade to flourish -- but that would also do better or worse jobs of rebuilding communities and helping to integrate white working class and minority citizens into shared prosperity.  The alternative to current trade policies is not closed borders, and Democrats know it.

Again, it is probably a bit of overkill to go on at such length in response to a column by Brooks.  He was, after all, one of many pundits who continued to describe Obama's measured incrementalism as radical leftism.  He repeatedly told Obama to stop being so liberal and embrace the holy grail of fiscal compromise -- the over-hyped Bowles-Simpson plan -- without noticing that Obama had actually offered to sign something more conservative than that supposed ideally moderate plan.

Wehner, however, is a different story.  He is relatively new to the Times's pantheon of punditry (and thus not stale), and he brought a level of thoughtfulness to his writing that was truly unique.  As a conservative and lifelong Republican, he was clearly anguished over the idea of rejecting his party's nominee.  But reject him he did, apparently at the cost of some friendships.

Nonetheless, Wehner's post-election analysis lapsed all too easily into the both-sides-are-bad trope.  In a December column that was otherwise a compelling argument in favor of compromise for the good of the republic, he demonstrated a decided detachment from reality: "The concern some of us have is that even before Mr. Trump set foot on the political stage, ... moderation was passé in both parties and that no politician would defend it as a political virtue."

Again, defending moderation as a political virtue is what the Obama-Clinton wing of the party has done over and over again, even to the point where the people who are to their left reviled them.  And it is not as if the actual policies that those on the supposed extreme left advocated were radical, either.  Sanders's plan for the estate tax, for example, would have done nothing more than return that tax to its 2009 form, when George W. Bush left office.

Yet we end up with news articles describing Democrats' post-election debates as if the party has not already moderated its views again and again: "The party is at odds over whether it should tailor its message to the young and nonwhite constituencies that propelled President Obama, or make an effort to court moderate voters." 

What does moderate mean here?  Is it merely Brooks's view all over again, which amounts to saying that appealing to anything but white working class Trump voters is per se immoderate?  What is it that Democrats have been doing to court the young and nonwhite constituencies that turns off these elusive moderate voters?  Moderates support Democrats' views on the environment, the minimum wage, reproductive choice, and on and on.  Unless we define moderate voters as people who are turned off by pluralism and modernity, then Democrats have been trying to appeal to moderate voters all along.

Or are we simply back to the now-familiar claim that Democrats talked too much about identity and not enough about the economy?  The problem with that argument is that Democrats spend quite a bit of time talking about the economy, and their policies are popular.  Setting up the question as a choice between appealing to young and nonwhite constituencies or going after moderates presumes that it is not possible to do both.  That is flatly untrue, unless we simply define moderation to make it tautologically impossible.

In a recent column, I argued that Democrats need to take "desperate measures" to deal with the desperate political situation in which they now find themselves.  My suggestion, however, was not to take extreme positions, in part because that is simply not necessary.  Sometimes, however, the moderate position is not supported by current legal doctrine, which means that trying to validate the moderate position can look like a hail-Mary pass.

I thus argued that Democrats should be willing to pursue legal challenges that might be a stretch under current legal doctrines, especially including challenges to various Republican efforts at voter suppression or gerrymandering.  Current legal doctrine imposes serious roadblocks to Democrats' potential challenges, including the idea that "political questions" should be decided by the political branches and not by the courts.

That means that the betting odds are decidedly against the Democrats in any such legal challenge.  But what the Democrats would be asking the courts to do is anything but extreme.  For example, they do not need to say, "We want to gerrymander, too."  This is not to say that Democrats are angels, of course, or that some of them would not be just as unrestrained if the roles were reversed.

But what they could propose is quite moderate and self-restraining: We want to be able to compete on a level playing field.  What would be the hallowed middle ground between that argument and what Republicans have done?  Democrats can and should occupy the center, even when doing so can be painted as desperate.

After all, Democrats would be arguing that the courts' reliance on the political branches to deal with political problems is admirable but that such reliance breaks down precisely when the political branches are no longer representing the people.  The courts' job should be to protect the people from the depredations of anti-democratic political operatives.  Would that argument not play well with moderates?

In the end, the Democrats need to push back harder than ever against the idea that they are merely the mirror image of the Republicans.  They are not the ones that championed policies that brought inequality to historic extremes (although, in their zeal to be seen as moderates, too many Democrats failed to fight those policies).  They are not the ones who deny reality regarding the environment.  And on and on.

It is a shame that, at a time when Trump's influence will only increase the extremism of Republicans in Congress and the statehouses, even the more reasonable conservatives are scolding the Democrats for nonexistent extremism.  There will always be rhetorical power in being able to call oneself moderate and one's opponents extreme.  Democrats have the advantage of being able to say so honestly.