by Sam Buntz
Many people think that if you identify as a moderate, you embrace the politics of watered-down wimpdom. David Brooks is a pretty moderate conservative, for example, and the Libertarian magazine, Reason, once lambasted him for a “compulsive need to seem reasonable” (which, it only now occurs to me, is somewhat ironic given the title of the magazine, no?): when faced with one faction, in a hypothetical debate, favoring cream of wheat and another faction favoring raisin bran, Brooks will reliably choose a third, oat-based option. This is funny—but it’s not exactly a fair judgment. People on the Far Left frequently attack moderate Democrats on similar grounds—compromises are for chumps, and if you think, say, that charter schools might not really be such a bad idea, you’re suddenly, dangerously close to pledging undying fealty to the Tsar.
The great essayist and fiction writer, G.K. Chesterton (in his day, a moderate) offered a better and more succinct definition of a political moderate, as someone who is really a “zealous judge”—interested in extracting pearls of practical truth from the bullshit amply ladled out by partisans on both sides of the aisle. Rather than simply picking a team and embracing its platform wholesale, the moderate is intellectually active and full of energy—doubting where doubt is necessary and affirming that which must be affirmed.
I am personally a moderate because I lack any specific emotional attachment to the dual creedal faiths of American politics. It seems clear to me that direct government action can solve certain problems and individual initiative and decentralization can solve others. There’s no one pill you can swallow to make it all better, so you need to constantly be on the alert, trying to negotiate between partial truths. If you look at great moderate thinkers—like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (cited by both President Obama and John McCain as an influence, weirdly enough)—you don’t encounter people who are saying, essentially, “Woah—don’t rock the boat!”
Instead, you see someone who understands that no ideology is so flawless that it can impose its system in total, without opposition or without a measure of self-doubt and humility. Today, by contrast, it seems that many politicians believe that, if they could only implement their vision in full, everything would be fine—we’d be living in either Ayn Rand or Noam Chomsky’s utopia. Tea partiers and Bill De Blasio-style Sandinista liberals are both equally guilty in this regard. Moderate politics might not appeal to stereotypical youthful idealists who think Paul Simon’s Graceland album is “cultural appropriation” or to a stereotypical super-conservative old person who is busily transforming all of his or her money into the form of gold (like Smaug the Dragon)—but they appeal to the person, of any age, “whose passion is Reality.” After all, there is no higher value than Reality… How could there be?
Far from being relative bystanders who don’t want to rock the boat, true moderates occupy the hub of action. Confronted by two opposing forces that are both necessary for the greater social ecology of life on planet earth—the “Yes” of the Left and the “No” of the Right—the moderate seeks to reconcile and balance those forces. He or she lifts the gates, opens the valves, allowing a certain amount of “Yes” and a definite proportion of “No” to enter into the world. Thus, the ideal moderate stands at the fulcrum of political action—like a Taoist sage, harmonizing Yin and Yang. (Obviously, its necessary to have this ideal reconciler-conserver-reformer present in both parties—since, if one party had a monopoly on the moderate type, the other party would be bound to react badly to moderate solutions.)
The problem with the common, hyper-arrogant human belief in the total superiority of one’s own political platform is that it fails to recognize that every aspect of life is based on balancing and reconciling dualities. All the ills that afflict humans due to imbalances between pairs of opposing forces can just as easily be applied, by analogy, to the political and social body: obesity, hypertension, constipation, etc. These are all ultimately failures to reconcile “Yes” and “No” within a system, to provide that ideal fulcrum. Just as the body and individual mind function by bringing conflicting pressures into harmony—systole/diastole, ingestion/excretion, reason/feeling—the political body works in the same way. But a true moderate makes these oppositions seem like they aren’t inherently based on conflict: politics begins to feel more like a dance and less like a war.