Do Moderates Need an Ideology?
Today, in the capital of our unhappy republic, representatives of the wingnut right and wingnut left are staging dueling circuses. On the right, Glenn Beck and his overheated minions are assembling at the Lincoln Memorial, 47 years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us about his dream. On the left, the Rev. Al Sharpton, race-card player extraordinaire, will be rallying his own troops. Vintage journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken, merry old cynic that he was, would have relished the spectacle. Me, not so much.
I have a confession to make. Let me announce it right here, on my very own marginal patch of blogosphere turf, in front of my moderate comrades and anyone else who might stumble across these words:
I envy the wingnuts.
That’s right, I’m jealous of the political extremists now proliferating across our polarized land like killer bees: not only the half-cracked Fox News/Tea Party/Birther conservatives but the insufferably sanctimonious HuffPosters, PC police and minority militants… the rampant radicals of left and right (but mostly wrong)… the whole cocksure, self-righteous, self-indulgent lot of them.
Why would I envy a bunch of wrongheaded and frequently obnoxious fanatics, you ask? Sensible question, and I can reel off several sensible answers.
- Because they’re so popular. Fanatics use their fanaticism to manipulate and agitate crowds. After all, crowds always enjoy a rip-roaring show, and they like to have their prejudices confirmed by outspoken members of their tribe. For this reason, fanatics breed followers the way mosquitos breed more mosquitos.
- Because they’re winning. Just try getting elected these days if you’re a moderate Republican or Democrat. You’re more likely to see the Pittsburgh Pirates win their division. The only moderate news network, CNN, is tanking like the Titanic. You’d never know that more Americans today consider themselves moderate than liberal or conservative.
- Because they’re always sure they’re right. The extremists’ most irritating trait is their most damnably enviable: they enjoy perpetual peace of mind because they’re convinced they have all the answers. And why are they convinced they have all the answers? …
- Because they work from a script. That’s right, it’s all written down in unambiguous black and white. If you’re an ideologue, you don’t have to hammer out your own point of view, evaluate pros and cons, or weigh the impact of a policy upon the various segments of the electorate. You’re operating by a neatly codifed set of rules, laid down by an illustrious (and probably humorless) intellectual progenitor. And you’re catering only to the segment of the electorate that elected you in the first place. The others don’t count.
You can see why I turn a bilious shade of green when I think about the successes of our rivals on the fringes. How can we moderates possibly compete? We’re so infernally sensible, balanced, flexible, accommodating, willing to see both sides of the equation. We’re so… moderate!
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But some of my centrist colleagues (and I don’t blame them) are beginning to agitate for a little more definition within our fledgling movement. Are we just a bunch of chronic anti-extremists, shaking our noggins at the excesses of our wingnut adversaries? Or do we actually stand for something? If so, what?
Good question. It’s easy to say what moderates are against: Socialism. Robber-baron capitalism. Government that’s too big and intrusive. Government that fails to offer a basic safety net High taxes. Artificially low taxes. Warmongering. Spineless appeasement. Special entitlements for minorities. Insufficient concern for the well-being of minorities. Bleeding-heart generosity toward illegal immigrants and Islamists. Knee-jerk prejudice against Hispanics and Muslims.
Yes, we can take pride in our commonsense, finely balanced positions between too much and too little. But they’re like a negative-space portrait: the background is deeply colored, but everything inside the outline of the face is strangely blank.
We know what we don’t like, but what do we want? What does our ideal society look like? Are we timid middle-of-the-roaders… namby-pamby compromisers who just want to keep the peace? Do we simply look at the extreme positions and take the average? Or do we moderates need an ideology to help define our core beliefs? Some of my colleagues believe we do.
I’ve always had a personal aversion to ideologies, probably because of the horrendous damage they’ve inflicted on societies over the past few centuries. An ideology is a rule book typically imposed on the masses by a tiny but supremely confident elite. The elite always know what’s best for the masses, of course, and anyone who doesn’t “get with the program” can wind up rotting away in a gulag or a freshly dug grave.
We can do better. I wouldn’t want to see moderates bind the public into an ideological straitjacket — even if we’ve designed the straitjacket ourselves, even if it’s the most comfortable and elegant straitjacket ever devised by the mind of man.
Still, a political movement needs a foundation, and moderates are no exception. Other than our opposition to extremism, what core principles guide those of us in the center of the political landscape?
I’d start with a healthy respect for the will of the people. Of course, “the people” are never going to agree on a single issue. But that’s precisely the point: unlike the ideologues, moderates would shun special interests in favor of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” That means you don’t allow judges to overturn popular votes or punish a state for defending its border at the people’s request… which leads me to the next core moderate principle:
The government must represent the interests of the governed. Let’s face it: our government has been hijacked by special interests. Lobbyists essentially own our elected representatives. Entrenched big-money interests have turned society into a cash-producing machine for their own use: the loot continually flows upward, against gravity, away from the middle class and into the pockets of the plutocrats. (The 100% reimbursement of Goldman Sachs’ bad investments with taxpayer dollars was a prime example.) This has to stop. We need to halt the illicit upward migration of money, just as we need to criminalize any exchange of funds between elected representatives and lobbyists. (Not so namby-pamby now, are we?) It’s also time to tighten the spigots a little on “free” services for people who haven’t paid into the system. Because we all know those services aren’t actually free. You can’t continue to drain the middle class and expect a nation to prosper.
The nation could use a megadose of healthy values. And we’re just the ones to provide it. Common sense. Decency. Civility. Nonpartisanship. Mutual respect. Pragmatism balanced with idealism. We moderates are uniquely positioned to promote solid, sensible beliefs, preferably without self-righteousness or religious fervor.
Finally, we need to help reunite the country. Because the left and right are engaged in a perpetual shouting match, they continually ratchet up the rhetoric and distort their own positions into self-caricatures. Frenzied believers tolerate no dissension within their ranks, and the infidels are cast into outer darkness. Moderate political candidates are pariahs within their own parties. Finally we’re left with Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton fighting for our attention in Washington.
The middle needs to get a voice — now. It’s starting to happen, but it has to happen faster. We moderates can use our unique position in the calm eye of the hurricane to fight the destructive rhetoric swirling around us at the extremes. Not with rigid ideology, but with the kind of decent civic principles we used to learn in school.
We have the potential power to keep America from spinning into the hands of extremists, but there’s another enemy to contend with: the apathy and complacency of our fellow moderates. The center can no longer afford to be silent. The more vocal moderates — the bloggers, the politicians, the pundits, the passionate centrists from all walks of life — have to awaken the sleepers in our midst.
Come on, let’s do it together!
Read a few more opinions on this subject from our comrades in the centrist blogosphere: Nick Goebel’s call for a more coherent centrist ideology at The Pragmatic Center, Solomon Kleinsmith’s argument against ideology at Rise of the Center, and these comments at The Centrist Zealot in response to my column.