What Do Moderates Want?
Fairness. It all boils down to fairness. For me at least, being a moderate is about being fair, playing fair, and doing our damndest to ensure that society and its government are fair to those who dwell within it.
I like the idea of fairness as the foundation of any moderate movement. Fairness is a childlike principle; all kids seem to be born with an innate sense of justice. They know when they’ve been snookered, they don’t like it, and they generally demand restitution (though they don’t use that particular word).
We all know that life can be brutally unfair. Virtue, kindness, honor and sensitivity carry no advantages in the jungle. The amoral Darwinian gods continually seem to reward aggression, exploitation and cunning. The more enlightened members of our species agree that nature can be unfair, which is why the best and most successful societies have created governments that are, nominally at least, democratic and humane. In other words, fair.
Playing fair means making sure the deck isn’t stacked in favor of (or against) any class of people. It means you don’t tolerate secret schemes to fill the already brimming pockets of the rich… but you also don’t topple them from their penthouses simply because they are rich. It means you do what you can to help the poor escape from the abysmal sinkhole of poverty, but you don’t pay their rent for them or honor them with fancy perks denied to the struggling middle and working classes. You strive for balance. A fair society is a balanced society, a society without favoritism.
Political extremists would throw society out of balance if they had their way. They demand “fairness” for their own class without regard for the other classes, and now they’ve become more vocal and irresponsible than ever. They strut, they hurl insults, they long to crush the opposition. And they grow more myopic by the day.
If you’ve spent much time on Twitter or other social media lately, you’ll notice that the extremists have created their own convenient amen corners: they go there to confirm their prejudices and rally the troops. They nurse their pet grievances and rouse each other’s anger. They feed on this collective fury, like a fire feeding on pure oxygen; they grow huge and menacing.
This is how revolutions begin — the kind of revolutions that start with one aggrieved class spewing invective at another class (whom they typically perceive as less aggrieved)… the kind of revolutions that invariably trade one group of oppressors for another.
Meanwhile, the fair-minded moderates among us languish in oblivion. We might be more numerous than the lefties and righties put together, but we seem to lack focus, conviction, bravado. We’re not flashy or contentious, so we’re ignored. Most of the time, anyway.
Of course, we’ve grown accustomed to taking grief from both the left and right. We’re mushy, they tell us. We’re spineless and apathetic and rudderless. We have no agenda. We stick to the middle of the road because we’re too timid and thin-blooded to venture elsewhere.
And we’re afraid they might have a point. We know what we’re against: extremism. But what are we for… what are our guiding principles? What exactly do moderates want?
Fairness. That’s what we want. Above all, a true moderate longs for a society that won’t tilt toward the right or the left or any special interest at all.
We find ourselves outraged when we see our elected representatives collaborating with big-money interests, shamelessly accepting legalized bribes in exchange for political favors. It sickens us to watch our government grow fractious and dysfunctional, as hidebound partisans subvert our national welfare for the chance to demolish the opposition. We shake our heads as we observe the endless parade of American identity groups whose members seem to owe greater allegiance to their homogeneous “community” than to the republic. Hey, we want to shout, we’re all Americans here — or would you prefer to set up your own state?
We’re supposed to be a nation, a united and unified body of citizens with a common purpose. That doesn’t mean we all think alike, but it means we need to start thinking together. The United States is no place for nations within nations. Ben Franklin put it memorably in his pre-revolutionary cartoon of a snake dismembered into 13 parts: Join or die. Sounds vaguely menacing, but he knew how to communicate a sense of urgency.
For better or worse, moderates believe in cooperation. We’ve seen how petty factionalism can cripple our government (not to mention our finances), as our representatives bicker while the ship of state runs onto the rocks. Cooperation has broken down, perhaps irretrievably.
During times of emergency (and we’re living in such times), we moderates need to be a little less cooperative with the status quo and a little more cooperative among ourselves. We need to embolden ourselves, build some internal consensus, make more noise, rouse ourselves to action and grab the wheel from the extremists.
When the vessel has veered too far to the right, as it has lately… when the entrenched interests have rigged the system in their favor (and against everyone else) … we need to turn the wheel sharply to the left. But only until we’re sailing straight ahead. That’s why they call us centrists.
But let’s understand this much: sometimes it takes radical action to chart a moderate course. The American Revolution was organized by gentlemen whose view of government was exquisitely fair and balanced, in the original sense of the phrase. They were revolutionaries for the cause of moderation. Lincoln singlehandedly abolished slavery, an institution that had been festering on these shores for nearly 250 years. It was a radical move, but his goal was simply to restore fairness to our society.
What would America look like today in the hands of moderates? Let me reassure you: it would bear a striking resemblance to America in the mid-to-late twentieth century, during our years of uncontested greatness.
We’d still have our rich and our not-so-rich. After all, it’s a free society, and all we can guarantee is equal opportunity, not equal results. But with tighter controls over the excesses of finagling Wall Street investment wizards and corporate potentates, the now-obscene wealth gap would shrink to its pre-millennial dimensions. Our top celebrities, CEOs and hedge fund managers might eventually have to trade their 50-room palaces and 16-car garages for mere 25-room mansions with eight-car garages. I think they can handle it.
We’d want to see Republicans cooperating with Democrats for the good of the nation, the way Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen used to cooperate with LBJ… the way Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to break bread amiably with Ronald Reagan. We’ve almost grown accustomed to politicians regarding their rivals across the aisle as scoundrels. This is not only wrong; it’s lethal to the functioning of government. Unchecked partisanship is a crippling disease.
We’d want to see the great American middle class thriving again: confident, prosperous, optimistic about the future. Can we turn back the clock to an era before globalization, downsizing and outsourcing, the triple whammy that brought the middle class to its knees? We can try. We can make it advantageous for American companies to hire Americans — and disadvantageous if they don’t.
We’d want to assure the poorest Americans that they won’t go hungry or homeless. That much is non- negotiable. But we can’t guarantee them a house with a picket fence, either. Where do we draw the line? Should we guarantee jobs to everyone who can work? I think we should; it would ultimately cost us less than the disastrous welfare system that created a permanent American underclass. Instead of paying the poor to be idle and produce children out of wedlock, we’d pay them to perform vital work that would build pride and eventually help them contribute to our economy. Even more important, it would be the decent thing to do.
Yes, we’d want to restore simple decency to American politics, commerce and life. Companies and their employees need to regain a sense of mutual loyalty and respect. (That means you don’t pay the CEO a thousand times as much as his secretary.) We need to banish the casino mentality from Wall Street once and for all: we’d start by outlawing short-selling and other slimy tactics for gaming the system. The economy of the Western world isn’t a game.
We’d also outlaw any exchange of funds between lobbyists and politicians: we need to insist on representatives who can’t be bought at any price. The public trust is something sacred and inviolable, and we can no longer tolerate the existence of secret alliances between powerful interests and their elected puppets. As I’ve said before, we need to throw the rascals out and send a wave of fresh-faced, incorruptible Mr. and Ms. Smiths to Washington.
As moderates, our numbers are vast. We’re the sleeping giant of American politics. If the two-party system has marginalized us and the partisans keep catering to the extremists in their ranks, maybe we need to start a third party. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. We’d need to unify all the moderate, centrist and independent groups out there, just as Bismarck assembled more than two dozen independent states to form a united Germany.
I’m aware that no new party has become a permanent American fixture since the Republicans sprang to life in 1854. (Of course, those upright men wouldn’t recognize their descendants today. For that matter, the Democrats wouldn’t recognize theirs.) But at the very least, we moderates must resolve to become a moving force in American politics. A force for good, for balance, for fairness. It’s time for us moderates to straighten our spines, stand up and make ourselves heard. I’m willing if you are.