The other day James Joyner posted a reaction to David Brooks’s latest column, a stab at defining political moderation:
Like JP, I fully “accept that we are a diverse society.” But I’m not so sure that “the best solutions work for as many of us as possible.” Indeed, I’m not even sure what that means. There’s really no compromise solution on, say, gay marriage or abortion that’s going to make the large preponderance of people living in both Oregon and Alabama happy. Old school federalism would leave those issues up to the states, allowing Alabama to be on one extreme and Oregon to be on the other extreme on those issues. But that really doesn’t work in our modern world, where someone from Oregon could very well find himself in Alabama and vice versa. It just doesn’t work to allow same-sex couples to be married in a handful of states and then have them considered not to be married if they get into a horrible accident while they happen to be passing through another state. Nor is there a “pragmatic” centrist position on those issues that can “trump ideology.” If the central belief in your life is that a deity has set a code of behavior that you must abide by, there’s really not a lot of room for ” live and let live” or “well, whatever works.”
It’s easier to be pragmatic at the margins. It’s difficult to argue that the top marginal tax rate that existed under Bill Clinton—much less Ronald Reagan—constitutes a degree of socialism that would undermine the fabric of our cherished way of life. Some have nonetheless managed. Still, it’s very difficult, indeed, to get over the notion that the leadership of one party only cares about the rich whereas the leadership of the other party wants to punish success. And a political system that rewards pandering to the extremes makes it easy to “prove” those caricatures real.
His post, understandably, provoked an outpouring of immoderate responses.
If I understand his take properly he challenges the very idea of moderation in politics. This post is what I usually call a “riff” on James’s. In it I’ll try to define briefly what I think being a political moderate means and put in my oar on where I think James is right and where I think he’s wrong.
Too often ignored is that moderation in politics has two components rather than just one: pragmatism in policy and temperance in expression. Moderates are pragmatic, non-ideological, and eclectic in the solutions to our problems they’d prefer. In making their arguments they tend not to express themselves agonistically. There are very, very few moderates in the political blogosphere. I am one of them. The reason there are so few is that it is such a thankless task. It is difficult to attract an audience without attracting attention and it’s difficult to attract attention without being outrageous. That itself is immoderate.
Moderate tend to seek common ground rather than hegemeny and prefer compromise to sweeping the field. They tend to be tolerant of a diversity of opinions. They are inclined to prefer gradual change rather than revolutionary upheaval.
There’s really no compromise solution on, say, gay marriage or abortion that’s going to make the large preponderance of people living in both Oregon and Alabama happy.
The underlying problem in both of these examples is that they are both social issues which under our constitution as understood by its writers are outside the realm of politics. The sweeping social changes that reversing long-standing postures by courts are certain to produce are being imposed autocratically rather than being arrived at through a process of deliberation. That maximizes the bitterness of the reaction. I suspect that this is taking too short term a view.
I do think that James overstates somewhat the vagabond quality of our society. People who can only be happy in Oregon tend to stay there; they don’t move to Alabama. The people who move are relatively indifferent. I suspect that their moving from Oregon to Alabama or vice versa tends to moderate the state to which they move. Maybe it’s the reverse. Maybe Oregonians who already think like Alabamans are more likely to move there.
If the central belief in your life is that a deity has set a code of behavior that you must abide by, there’s really not a lot of room for ” live and let live” or “well, whatever works.”
I disagree with this categorically. I think that if the central belief in your life is that a deity has set a code of behavior that you must impose upon others, he’s right. But it is possible to believe that someone is wrong without believing that they must be stopped forcibly. The law is the minimum acceptable code of ethics rather than the complete code of ethics. I think there’s plenty of room for religious tolerance of hot button social issues like abortion or gay marriage so long as they’re not imposed from outside.
The great problem is the incremental tendency towards everything being prescribed by law towards a condition in which everything is either prohibited or mandatory.