What is a Moderate? The 'Fair and Balanced' Dilemma


Moderate Bostonians try to cure John Malcolm, British Commissioner of Customs, of his monarchical extremism.

In theory, everyone loves a moderate. Unfortunately, ask a handful of people to define a moderate and you’ll soon realize that it’s one of those words that gets thrown around by folks without ever being pinned down. Sure, there are some self-described idealogical purists who would recoil from the label of ‘moderate’ altogether – think Barry Goldwater telling a Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…[and] that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Barry Goldwater was no moderate and that was the point. But most of us are happy to think of ourselves as moderates: that is, we’re happy to imagine that most thinking adults would agree with us more often than not. Most of the time, ‘moderate’ is simply bandied about as a synonym for ‘rational’ – and who doesn’t want to be rational? The word ‘moderate’ has largely lost its meaning, except as a rhetorical tool.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that when all of us look out at the world, our view is filtered through actors who, while informing us, also want to shape our perception of that world. Anyone who has ever had a car serviced is familiar with how this works – you’re dependent on the mechanic for his expert knowledge on what’s wrong with your car, but you also know he has a stake in influencing how worried you think you should be about that rattling noise coming from the undercarriage.

And perhaps the most important perception that information outlets want to shape is our impression of what are the proper bounds of polite political discourse. That’s how you end up with Fox News marketing itself as ‘Fair and Balanced’; the goal of their editorial posture isn’t simply to convince you of a position, but also to give you a sense of how far from that position the opposition can stray without losing legitimacy.

Think of Rachel Maddow describing the United States as center-left while Sean Hannity describes it as center-right, all the while denouncing the other as a radical. Their goal is to shape our perception of where the moderate middle is. Opinion shapers like Maddow and Hannity know they’re towards the edge of the political spectrum and they know many independent-minded Americans might gravitate towards them but still be tethered to some notion of where the center is. If they can move that center, then they can move the country.

Moderate Bill O'Reilly thinks you're a balanced pinhead for disagreeing with him.

Moderate Bill O’Reilly thinks you’re a balanced pinhead if you disagree with him.

Lurking behind all this is the pervasive notion that moderation is the same thing as bipartisanship and that bipartisanship is essentially equivalent to splitting the difference. Now, I don’t know how many Americans are really that interested in splitting the difference. I’m guessing not many. Truth is, I don’t talk to a lot of Solomons these days. But that notion, that fairness is asking everyone to make equivalent sacrifices, does seem to pervade the way politics gets covered.

And it makes no sense.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against compromise. In fact, I did quite the opposite in my last post. When you reach an impasse, compromise is usually the best option from a small set of otherwise pretty disruptive alternatives. After all, what else can we do, endure seemingly-endless gridlock? Pursue Second-Amendment remedies? Right. So compromise it is. What I am arguing against is making bipartisanship the gold-standard for what makes good policy.

When one or more of the poles we use to delimit the span of our political spectrum is mired in irrational extremism, then taking the average isn’t much of a guiding principle. There are a lot of issues on which the major parties each emphasize good points that exist in tension with each other. Fiscal policy is a prime example: it’s hard to make a responsible argument against fiscal discipline but it’s equally hard to argue that there aren’t many areas where government money can be put to good use. The fight is mostly about what exactly fiscal discipline entails, what tasks government can ably perform, as well as how to trade off each of those against the commensurate tax burden. I know that doesn’t sound as hysterical as what you’re used to hearing, but fiscal policy is a classic split-the-difference sector: there are no solutions, only trade offs.

In other areas, like civil rights, it gets harder to argue that taking the average is either civically or morally defensible. Some people believe that gay Americans should be entitled to all the same protections as straight Americans and that their unions should receive all of the same legal rights and benefits that straight unions receive. I find it difficult to argue that we should average that position with the position held by other Americans who believe that gay people are inherently predatory and that our children need to be protected from them, that they should receive no protection from discrimination, and that acts of intimacy between consenting adults should be criminalized. I don’t believe that because, frankly, I’m not a horrible person.

And there are other areas where no discernible middle ground exists. Consider the question of whether an unborn fetus – let’s say during the first trimester – is or isn’t an independent human life deserving of protection. Some people hold that position and some people don’t. Bewilderingly, to me at least, some of the people who don’t believe that have a difficult time understanding why some of the people who do believe that are so vehement in their belief that it should be a crime to abort that fetus. I’m not sure that there’s a fair and balanced position that can ever reconcile those two camps.

(c) Duncan Rawlinson | Moderate Prof. Chomsky - well-known for his ability to convince skeptical audiences.

(c) Duncan Rawlinson | Moderate Prof. Chomsky – well-known for his ability to convince skeptical audiences.

So, if moderation isn’t splitting the difference, then what is it? You’d expect a blog that, somewhat tongue in cheek, bills itself as ‘ministering to the moderates’ would have a thoughtful answer to that question. Well, I can’t promise that you’ll find it compelling because trying to win a semantics fight is a bit like trying to punch someone in the face until they fall in love with you. But I would argue that moderation is closer to non-partisanship than it is to bipartisanship.

In other words, I’m less worried with whether or not we reach moderate conclusions than I am with whether or not we reach conclusions moderately. America has a currently dormant but historically grand tradition of disruptive innovation in politics. We also have a history of taking bold-colored positions on moral geopolitical issues. I celebrate that tradition and, at least in that sense, I agree with Goldwater. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue – there’s nothing commendable about moderately pursuing an end to sex trafficking or child slavery or religious persecution or press intimidation. I don’t want moderate responses to those problems, I want vigorous responses to those problems.

What we should want is a moderate approach to understanding what our problems are. That is, we need a political conversation that is non-ideological, that is open to new ideas and new evidence. We need a politics that begins with the task of understanding our world and the challenges that we face, and proceeds to the task of crafting policy responses to those problems; not a politics that begins with a list of preferred policy outcomes and then crafts an understanding of the world that supports those positions.

That is what I mean by moderation. That’s the goal. Not because it will ever be achievable, but because moving in that direction is the best way to honor the ideal that our Founding Fathers once eloquently, paradoxically, and hopefully captured in the words, “a more perfect Union.”

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