Summer Rerun #3: Are Moderates Just Misfits?
Here’s the third and last of my summer reruns before we return to live action. I wrote this piece in December 2009, as you might guess from the first sentence below. It still rings true, unfortunately, because it’s tougher than ever to be a moderate in today’s pathologically polarized America. As for the moderate movement I sing about… well, let’s just say I haven’t lost hope.
As we enter the final month of the most demoralizing decade in recent memory, I think we moderates need to ask ourselves some critical questions about our place in the world. Don’t worry about the answers. Right now it’s more important to ask the questions than to answer them (though you’re invited to supply us with any solutions that pop into your head).
If you’ve noticed the title at the top of this page, you already know my first question. Are moderates just misfits? Have we crash-landed in our lonely, uncharted, unregarded territory only because we couldn’t land anywhere else? Are we pariahs on the political scene? Do we really know what we believe, other than the fact that we can’t buy what the right-wingers and left-wingers are peddling?
This past weekend I had dinner at the home of a couple I like and respect. Both the husband and wife fit comfortably in the “NPR liberal” mold: they’re ardent vegetarians and members of the local food co-op… they send their two kids to a progressive private school that refuses to grade its students… they donate books to the poor. They’re good and generous people.
When I told them I had launched a blog for moderates, the wife was incredulous. “Do moderates believe in anything?,” she asked in earnest.
I reached deep into my hat and produced the obligatory white rabbit. We moderates believe in restoring a sense of balance, I told her. When we see the boat tipping to one side, we feel an instinctive need to tip it the other way. I said we support “the greatest good for the greatest number,” employing that hoary utilitarian catchphrase in all its sweeping vagueness. I added that our views are flexible and prone to shift over time; a moderate on race relations half a century ago would sound quaintly conservative (if not downright bigoted) today.
So yes, I supplied my friends with answers… but were they satisfactory answers? Did my impromptu apology for moderation give us a recognizable shape, a brand, a credo on which we could build a movement? I’m not sure. I’m afraid my answers gave the impression that we moderates have no fixed values of our own… that we exist primarily to foil those wicked extremists.
I did a little soul-searching after that dinner. I found it interesting that I’m both a longtime moderate and a longtime cynic (although less of a sneering, hard-boiled cynic than a disgruntled idealist who secretly clings to his ideals). I wondered if the two states of mind could be related. A cynic, after all, is inclined to be skeptical of all human certainties. So is a moderate.
I’ve tried to pry myself into the ideological hiking boots of the left, and I’ve attempted to squeeze into the glossy wingtips preferred by the right. Neither pair fits, so essentially I’ve had to cobble my own footwear. Maybe you’ve had to cobble yours, too.
Until now, we moderates have had no lodestars to light our way… no moderate magazines, or moderate activists, or larger-than-life moderate heroes immortalized in statues, verse or TV miniseries. Nobody knows what we stand for, including most of our own tribe, and until now we’ve been content to be left out of the public debate. We’re misfits, all right.
Then I had a minor revelation: in a society gone berserk, being a misfit is a gleaming, 24-karat badge of honor. We moderates swear allegiance to no rigid ideologies, bow at the feet of no preening potentates, drink no Kool-Aid before its time. In short, we own our souls.
We’ve been marginalized, yes… but we’re also free. Free to oppose special interests, with all their willfully self-serving hidden agendas. Free to speak out against coercion, censorship and chicanery. Free to shout “Humbug!” when we observe humbug in our midst.
Odd, isn’t it, that thoughtful moderates have so much in common with thoughtful cynics. We’re misfits, renegades, knights-errant battling windmills. And we get no respect from the safely entrenched insiders. Milquetoasts, are we? Timid and noncommittal? I don’t think so. We’re in good, robust company.
Give us a little time, and we’ll build a movement. We won’t be marching in lockstep; that’s not our way. But we’ll be moving… moving to the center of American political life where we’ve always belonged. Care to join us?