My Life as a Moderate

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I am an American moderate.

Such is the state of our shared discourse taxonomy, however, that I could’ve just as easily called myself an American centrist.

To me the two are different. Some agree with me on that; others use the terms interchangeably. Who cares. “Moderate,” “centrist,” “squish,” “placebo-pilled dipshit”—none of these terms matter. What matters is that I not engage in Both-Sides-ism.

And that’s just it: discourse labels aren’t nearly as informative as discourse tendencies. Most of the time labels just don’t tell us very much.

Consider “centrist,” a term that whenever you see it is either being derisively imposed on people who can hardly imagine that they fall under that designation (such as when Elizabeth Warren is called a centrist), or cynically deployed by ideological castaways seeking to launder their extremism as boringly popular (such as the Twitter user @a_centrism’s fevered attempts to cast race science as centrist).

Which means, when someone tells you they’re an American moderate, that doesn’t help all that much. You’ve got to wait for the fuller roll-out.

There is a fluidity built into the very fabric of political labels that should disincline us from using them as though they’re static or fixed.

If a person identifies as centrist in 1990 and maintains that self-understanding all the way to 2020, that term won’t have picked out any durable political beliefs or policies across that timespan. How could it? The center is always a point along a spectrum flanked by perspectives that experience great change over time. And if what it means to be on the right and on the left shifts with time, then necessarily centrism does too.

For many, this is good grounds for taking a wrecking ball to the political spectrum as a framework.

But I won’t do that. I’ll merely set it aside. I am a moderate and not a revolutionary, after all!

Why do I describe myself as an American moderate?

The “American” part is easy. If I’m right that temporal differences complicate concepts like “centrist” and “moderate,” because what it means to be liberal or conservative varies considerably across time, then international differences introduce even greater complications.

It’s hard enough parsing what the center might amount to in our own political environment; it is arguably incoherent to conceive of it as a trans-national political perspective. A centrist here is not necessarily a centrist elsewhere, and vice versa.

Okay, but why “moderate”?

I don’t really care about the term, to be honest. I certainly don’t swear by it. That said, here are some of my animating commitments that hopefully explain why that’s a decent designation for me.

(1) I have diffuse beliefs—not just philosophically but also politically.

Ever since I’ve been politically conscious, my belief set has been ideologically cross-cutting to a degree that is perhaps far less common in others. Most people have one or two things they think “the other side” has gotten right, but for me it’s always many things—so many things, in fact, that I’m not sure I could even discern what my originating “side” is supposed to be. I don’t even have one.

And this is why …

(2) I am also avowedly anti-tribalist.

Given that truth can come from anywhere, I cannot afford the viewpoint circumscription that is a necessary component of joining an ideological team.

When you join a tribe, there is considerable pressure—both from fellow thinkers and from audience members and followers—to stay comfortably inside the perimeter of the tribe’s acceptable views. That’s intellectually stifling, and inimical to a genuinely truth-seeking posture.

(3) I am also temperamentally anti-extremist.

This follows from the belief that although the edge positions on the political spectrum sometimes get it right, more often than not they don't.

One of the reasons they don’t is they epistemically close themselves off to the possibility that other traditions ever get anything right, which ultimately harms their own ability to analyze things properly, since it’s very unlikely any one tradition or outlook has a monopoly on truth.

Since theirs is a totalizing denunciation—everything must go—extremists rarely find anything of worth in rival positions.

If you listen closely, you can hear the extremist rev up his reply strategy even now: “Oh, so you think we should find something of worth in FASCISM????”

Of course not. But that’s just it: the interpretive decision to uncritically and ahistorically apply the category “fascism” to things that aren’t is precisely the problematic tendency I’m describing. (Just as calling everything “communist” is similarly fraught.)

This incapacity to attribute basic reasonableness to rival perspectives is something that doesn’t track well with my own evaluations of those positions. There are fascist and proto-fascist views out there, and they deserve to be called out. But a mark of extremism is a narrow drawing of the circle of the enlightened, with everyone outside it being villainous degenerates hell-bent on heaping misery on others. That’s not what I’ve found.

(4) Finally, I am deeply wary of the encroachment of activism within realms that are supposed to be governed by intellectual norms.

Activism, or the grassroots-level pursuit of social change, has a phenomenal track record of helping realize morally urgent reforms—but, perversely, the very conditions for its effectiveness require dismissing measured reflection as unimportant or even counterproductive.

Some of the worst trends in the discourse come from activist spaces, some of the worst takes from activist mindsets. That’s expected, of course, since placing a premium on effecting social change concomitantly lowers the importance of carefully grappling with evidence and arguments.

Activism is a source of great good, but it is not at home in an arena that is supposed to be governed by intellectual virtues.

How does this connect with being a moderate? An activist won’t have much time for reactions of the “not sure I agree, but interesting point” variety, or the “not fully on board, but very reasonable” variety. That’s a moderate disposition.

These, roughly, are what make me a moderate. I have many more positions than just these. I am a Christian in the historic Protestant tradition. I am a philosophical liberal—I find it far and away the societal configuration most respectful of individual autonomy and human flourishing. But this post isn’t about these other things.

I am a moderate because I believe that the discourse profile I’ve charted out above, if done right, can enable a person to navigate the public square with a commitment to truth, a willingness to criticize any camp that has gotten something important wrong, and a higher likelihood of landing in a thoughtful place.

I hope this newsletter lives up to that ideal.