Reversion to the Mean-Spirited

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.

James writes:

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.

James writes:

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.

12 comments… add one
  • I am from Texas. I still sing the old songs, such as “Bluebonnets of Texas” and “Yellow Rose.”

    And I loved the Northwest, except for all the drizzly rain. And I loved New York City, and sang those songs, too. (Not that you’d like to hear to hear me sing. I can barely carry a tune, much less pitch.)

    And now my heart is in Louisiana. And I need to go replace some defunct cauliflower sets with Savoy cabbage in the garden.

  • The problem, though, is that all too often it is not the religious believers seeking to impose some moral code upon the rest of society – it is the agnostics and the atheists and those who don’t seriously adhere to the traditional moral beliefs of Christianity who insist that those who do must be forced to change their behavior. Thus it is insufficient that birth control and abortion be allowed — religious believers (and even their religious institutions) must be forced to subsidize them. Gone are the days when the chant “get your rosaries off of my ovaries” has any meaning — today the problem is that feminists insist upon those who pray and make rosaries subsidizing the sterilization (temporarily or permanently) of their ovaries. And while we still hear “my body, my choice”, the demand today is that said choices be paid for by those with moral objections to them.

  • But you also get things like this conflict between insurance coverage and the Catholic establishment.

    For any woman employee who uses her own money to fund an abortion or contraception, the Catholic church has paid for that, too.

    Where do you draw the line?

  • Or male employee, for that matter.

  • Andy Link

    I think PD had the best comment to James’ post.

    I agree with Dave’s post on this as well.

    To put it another way, moderates may have a favorite “team,” but their loyalty is never absolute. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays on partisanship and ideology.

  • I rather like Ben Wolfe’s first comment. But then I’ve been called a cynic.

  • steve Link

    Growing up, everyone was either a Chevy truck guy or a Ford truck guy. I have owned both. I dont really understand the need for tribal affiliation. I voted mostly for the GOP in the past. I will vote mostly for the Dems now (will still vote for our GOP congressman to whom I donate).

    The broader point is that most people dont pay that much to politics. They just vote for a team they chose for some vague reason. The elites who make up the team rules have become more extreme and most people just go along.

    “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. ”

    Not sure about this. I think that could also apply to most things we now legislate. The guys who wrote the Constitution had no idea we would have corporations as they now exist, or airports or medical care that (sometimes) works or that women would work and vote. I think you could say that we have had and will continue to have conflicts where religion and behaviors conflict. Prohibition was certainly influenced by religion.


  • I think that could also apply to most things we now legislate.

    No argument there. We’re legislating a lot of things now that used to be seen as outside the area of politics. One of the reasons for that might be the breakdown of the national consensus. That might be a factor of size or even better communications and transportation. There might be too many people for most of us to agree on anything. Ideas that were once on the isolated fringe are now spread all over the place.

    To me that means we should constrain what we try to do at the national level but I recognize that opinions differ on that. Michael, for example, seems to believe that since it’s impossible to achieve national consensus local variants should be abandoned in favor of many things that are now decentralized being centralized.

  • Early voting started here in Florida yesterday. The length of time for early voting has been shortened by several days and the number of locations for early voting has decreased. The closest to us is a local library branch in Ocoee. The voting is in the back of the building. The line (in the past) will go straight down the center of the building and then outside.

    We drove by the nearest one yesterday around 10 AM. The line stretched out of the building, along the front, curved around the side and then outwards in a ‘u’ shaped pattern and then out into a field. A HUGE line. The elementary school parking lot and the aforementioned field were filled with cars.

    The black churches locally are making a big push to get their people out to the polls. The line was probably about 50-60% black. (Being the closes to us means its also the closest to Pine Hills.) Drove by it this morning and the line didn’t seem quite as long, though it was still out into the field. Given that I was there a little earlier today and that white and blacks on this town are more likely to be church going folk that does not surprise at all.

    My wife had been hoping to vote this weekend but she wasn’t about to stand in those lines. So she’ll try again early tomorrow. I’m likely to go sometime in the middle of the day during the week – should be fewer people in line then.

    Looking around voter intensity seems to be up on the Republican side from last time. (I’ll come back to the black vote shortly.) The latest poll by the Tampa Bay Times has the I-4 corridor going for Romney 51-45%. The poll was conducted by the Mason-Dixon polling outfit. That pretty much means lights out for Obama in Florida. Obama can’t win the state without at least tying in the I-4 corridor.

    Blacks were definitely turning out to vote yesterday. (I didn’t get as close to the line today so I don’t know what it looked like today.) My wife told me that she’s read about the big get-out-the-vote effort by the churches. However before the Dems get too excited they should remember a few things. First, not all blacks go to church. Second, there just aren’t as many blacks in this area as there were four years ago. When I go up to vote later in the week I will definitely see more whites (as a percentage) than I did yesterday. There’s no doubt that the Republicans are going to be serious about getting out and voting this time around.

    Bottom line: At this point I will be surprised if Obama wins Orange County. I haven’t been out to the east and south ends of OC enough recently to have any idea what those areas will do, but R intensity is up over four years ago.

  • I have to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers retro uniforms make them look like they escaped from a 1930s prison movie that had been colorized by Ted Turner.

  • A nice finish to the Tampa Bay Times article linked above:

    Few Americans receive as much attention from the presidential campaigns as those living around I-4. Campaign commercials flood their TV airwaves, and rarely a week goes by without a visit from one of the candidates or their top surrogates.

    You might think these all-important swing corridor voters relish their outsized influence.


    Only one in four say all the attention is a good thing, while seven in 10 consider it annoying.

    Don’t worry folks, it’s almost over.

    The overwhelming majority of us just want this to be over. I take that as a good sign for the mental health of the region.

  • I forgot to mention that at least three other races might be driving the black vote this time around. Sheriff Jerry Demmings is running for re-election in Orange County. He’s the county’s first black sheriff. I have no idea how he will do in that election, and because of some local law enforcement issues he isn’t guaranteed the black vote. His wife Val Demmings is running for Congress against Congressman Daniel Webster. This is Webster’s first re-election effort, and Val was recently Orlando’s Chief of Police (first black and first woman to hold that position). I think Val doesn’t have a chance in that election. Also, Congresswoman Corrine Brown is up for re-election again. She’s in a racially gerrymandered district that stretches from Pine Hills to Jacksonville. Most of the blacks in Pine Hills are in her district and not Webster’s. Corrine is in a safe seat, and her (apparently whacky) challenger hasn’t got a prayer.

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