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Moderate, Centrist, Middle-of-the-Road: What’s in a Name?

October 23, 2009

Yesterday, as I was exploring the website of a fellow moderate  (Stephen Erickson, executive director of the newly launched who had the good grace to link with me, I noticed that he prefers to be known as a centrist. Mr. Erickson writes:

By “center” we don’t necessarily mean “moderate.” Yes, we hope to maintain a moderate tone and reasoned approach to politics and public policy. And yes, we will often find ourselves between the right and the left on the political spectrum, and we will look for common ground. But in the end political movements are not built on lukewarm positions. “We demand everything the extremists do, only less of it!” isn’t much of a rallying cry.

Nor is moderation necessarily where we are philosophically. Instead of looking for compromises in every scrap of legislation churning its way through Congress, we seek out the broad center of the American political tradition. We are not afraid of radical structural change when such change promises to restore the spirit of American democracy. When it comes to the currently dysfunctional areas of healthcare, education, and the election system, for examples, we think drastic change is required. Moderate temperament need not lead to timid measures.

Well said, especially the last line. This Mr. Erickson is my kind of moderate: one who isn’t afraid to take radical positions in defense of the common good. Because, as he knows, sometimes compromise isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to break a bone to reset it properly. We denizens of the political center sometimes need to take radical positions (like my own immoderate tirades against Wall Street and lobbyists) if we want to offset the power and interests of the extremists who dominate the political debate.

But what do we call ourselves: moderates or centrists? Does it matter? I’ve always used the labels interchangeably, so the distinction piqued my interest. Wikipedia defines “centrist” in these terms:

In politics, centrism is the ideal or the practice of promoting moderate policies which lie between different political extremes.

So, according to the sages at Wikipedia, a centrist would be someone who espouses moderate ideas. Does that help? You could just as easily add that a moderate is someone who espouses centrist ideas. And there we are, back at square one.

I’m inclined to think that the distinction between “centrist” and “moderate” boils down to the whiff of nuance surrounding both words. “Centrist” comes across as more strictly political and crisply defined than “moderate.” A centrist would wear a suit, live in Washington and organize grassroots campaigns to prevail over the extremists.

“Moderate” comes closer to defining an attitude, a philosophy — even a way of life — than describing an organized political party. It’s a gentler and more contemplative word, which explains the tendency of so many commentators to dismiss moderates (unfairly, of course) as spineless compromisers. 

I’m sticking to my guns as a moderate, though I wholeheartedly support the centrists. I don’t think any reasonable reader of The New Moderate could call me timid. (They might call me a lot of other things, and that’s fine.)

As I always like to point out (in fact, I think I did in my previous post), a moderate can become a revolutionary if pushed hard enough. I like to think I’m that kind of moderate. I hope you are, too. A radical moderate, not a middle-of-the-road moderate. We aim to stir the pot, battle the extremists and promote “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  Maybe we should call ourselves “majoritarians.” What do you think?

Regardless of what we call ourselves, my role here is to generate passion for our cause. When my job is done, the party organizers can take over and I’ll retire happily to my library. I still need to finish Moby-Dick, read Don Quixote and raise my son before I’m whisked away to the compost heap.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2009 7:08 pm

    Rick and other real moderates, I hope you will love the following opinion article as much as I did.

    • October 24, 2009 12:44 pm

      It reminds me a little of the Cold War nostalgia that conservatives felt after the fall of the Soviet empire. Having a formidable opposition can be a great motivator. We moderates have opponents on BOTH sides, so you’d think we’d be especially motivated.

  2. October 23, 2009 7:19 pm

    Rick, just so you should know: composting is mandatory in some places, so you may be a law-abiding moderate corpse someday.
    Required Composting Begins in San Francisco:

  3. November 7, 2009 5:45 am

    Moderates can tollerate moderate change! But if annyone suggests that the situation calls for something that is more extreeme than what moderates can tollerate, and that compromise by moderates is no longer possible and could be viewed as “SELL OUT! by those that are not moderate, it is then when the moderates fall off of their centrist fence and cease to be!
    This situation leaves only the extreeme opposites able to clash against their opposite kind without the moderate center’s compromising interference.
    When you have a clash of opposites, that clash can end only by having a clear cut winner and looser between the clash of opposite tendencies. The clash ends when the winner of the clash of opposite tendencies, agree to a new compromise that is more relevant to the new conditions that has evolved from the conditions that had existed in the past.
    A new moderate center is born that is more relevant than the moderate center from the past.

  4. November 16, 2009 3:00 pm

    “When you have a clash of opposites, that clash can end only by having a clear cut winner and looser between the clash of opposite tendencies. The clash ends when the winner of the clash of opposite tendencies, agree to a new compromise that is more relevant to the new conditions that has evolved from the conditions that had existed in the past.”

    Did you just discover Hegel or something?

    At this point there are more independents, moderates and centrists than liberals or conservatives. So even if your beliefs were accurate, they are not reflective of the political scene today. Today, national politicians must tack to the center in order to win. If they go too far to the left or to the right they will lose. Of course local/state politics are different. In some states/localities you have large conservative (much of the rural south) or liberal (NYC, SF Bay Area, etc.) majorities. But in the nation as a whole, he (or she) who appeals to the center, wins.

  5. November 16, 2009 11:22 pm

    New Centrist: Welcome to your new sanctuary in the center. I was about to add your site to my blogroll when I discovered that you’re throwing in the towel. Can’t blame you. As I’ve discovered, it’s not easy building an audience with a hundred million other bloggers out there — especially when fellow-moderates like Donklephant refuse to recognize my site. (I don’t know what’s with that guy.) But my traffic is slowly growing, and I’ll stick around for a while. Hope you’ll join the debates here.

    Anyway, I agree with you that we moderates have to be more than a Hegelian synthesis of opposing ideas. As I noted somewhere else on this site, two bad ideas in opposition don’t necessarily lead to a good idea. We have to be more than compromisers, middle-of-the-roaders and consensus builders. There’s nothing wrong with any of those three roles, but they don’t go far enough. You can’t build a movement on them.

    Moderates need to figure out what they stand for, not simply find compromise solutions to disputes between the right and left. As I see it, our role as moderates is to ensure that our politics and policies represent “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sounds utilitarian, I know, but I’ve had it with special-interest groups on both the right and left pushing their agendas as if it’s all about them.

    As moderates, we need to be vigilant boat-balancers. Example: I think our economy has been favoring the right-wing plutocratic elite for too long now; it needs to be tipped back to the center. By the same token, our culture has been kidnapped by the PC left; again, it needs to be tipped back to the center. Sometimes the change has to be radical (I’d like to criminalize the flow of money from lobbyists to elected representatives, for example; I’d also like to revamp our “winner take all” economy by instituting income caps in all fields.) But my “radicalism” is simply aimed at restoring needed balance.

    This kind of activist center can play a vital role in serving the best interests of the majority without ignoring the minorities. Moderates: we’re not just middle-of-the-roaders any more.

  6. November 17, 2009 11:31 am

    I am confused, I never could figure who and how much to tip. Don’t they pay enough to Starbucks people? Oh, well, I can’t figure out what my cat wants half the time either. I think that all this business about pay caps and such is more of a smoke screen perpetrated by politicians so they can spend and divert bigger bucks for “my constituents”. They (big Gov.) is all about confusing left, right and center for there greater good and power. They are treating us like kids (show Johnny cartoons, that will keep him quiet) so we can protect him with bigger government programs.
    “How about a nice big trial in NYC, with plenty of sirens and cops, and soldiers, bomb sniffing dogs; much better than a boring Military trial that no one could see.”
    Won’t that show what nice guys we are to the world and all our people can say what good guys we are.”

  7. November 17, 2009 2:05 pm

    Said like a true cynic, dduck. You should check out my other site, I sometimes wonder if moderates have a predisposition to cynicism… unlike leftists and conservatives, we don’t trust ideologies. And of course, it rankles us to see the extremists get all the attention.

    By the way, I’m looking forward to a big, splashy, headline-making trial for Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (or however they spell his name in our alphabet). Let the world recoil at the evidence of his evildoing. Of course, his fanatical followers will become even more fanatical, but I’m hoping his trial might help draw a line between moderate and extremist Muslims. No Muslim with any vestige of a conscience would be able to support him.

    • November 17, 2009 7:29 pm

      Rick, we are 180 on this one. I fear that the extremists will gain the most out of this.

  8. November 19, 2009 9:38 am

    Oh, I’m sure the trial will radicalize more Muslims here and there, but it should also prompt moderate Muslims (and there ARE moderate Muslims — see my latest post) to say, “We don’t want to be identified with these thugs,” and start a viable reform movement. We could be fighting Islamist terrorists for the next 200 years unless moderate Muslims do something to de-radicalize their fellow believers.

  9. November 19, 2009 11:09 am

    I hope it’s a little shorter.

  10. November 24, 2009 11:44 am

    Hi Rick,

    After a little over a month away, I am back posting stuff again. Will also be posting material @ centermovment by the end of the month or so.

    All the best,


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