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Moderation Won’t Cure Our Polarization. But Real Leadership Might.

Extremism is a problem that won't go away as long as neither party sees any benefit in compromising.
February 28, 2019
Moderation Won’t Cure Our Polarization. But Real Leadership Might.
John McCain. (Photo by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images)

As the polarization of our national politics grows more extreme, much is made of how few moderates are left in Congress. There are only a handful of true moderates left in Congress: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Joe Manchin, plus a few more in the House. There’s not much reason to hope that we’ll see more anytime soon. But maybe we should be focused on something more important: actual leadership, which is also in short supply.

The topic was discussed this week at the Niskanen Center’s Event, “Beyond Left and Right: Reviving Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism.” On the surface, the topic of debate was the decline and fall of moderate politics, but the subtext was almost always about the office holders themselves.

Fairly quickly the participants came to a consensus: Moderation isn’t the same as political centrism. Nor should it be. The best policy on any given issue isn’t necessarily somewhere in between the two parties. It’s possible one party is right and the other party is wrong, or, as seems the most likely recently, both parties are way off base.

“Moderation, to be useful, has to be thought of in relation to a set of founding values and philosophical ideals,” Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk said, “and to me those ideals are ideals of liberal democracy.” Where the parties stand is immaterial.

Elaine Karmack of Harvard argued, “The other way to look at moderation is incrementalism.” But, she implied, politicians are in a race with one another to offer radical policies like the Muslim  travel ban or the Green New Deal, perpetuating a cycle of resentment with their bases when the checks invariably bounce.

In response, Damon Linker of The Week said that what we usually think of as the center – voters with conservative economic preferences and liberal social preferences – really don’t exist anymore, per the Voter Study Group.

Republicans are generally socially conservative but split between liberal (or populist) and conservative on economic issues , while Democrats are mostly liberal on both dimensions (at least as measured by 2016 presidential voters).

Which means that what we normally think of as moderation or centrism is dead. The only viable definition is Burkean incrementalism. And we don’t have that. At least since Obamacare, both Republican and Democratic politicians have promised the moon to their bases – universal health insurance, massive tax cuts, fiscal responsibility, radical environmental policy, the biggest military budget  ever – if only the voters would give one party complete, veto-proof, filibuster- proof majorities in Congress.

University of Maryland political scientist Frances Lee hypothesized that the country is split pretty much evenly in terms of partisan support. In any given election, either party has a chance of winning power, so there’s little point in compromise or bipartisanship if the minority thinks it could be in the majority in two years. At least in this theory our leaders are rational.

Left unresolved is why the majority, which can easily see itself out of power in two years, would have so little incentive to compromise. Do Democrats, just a few years separated from the Obamacare rollout, not see the pitfalls of promising Medicare for All? Do Republicans not see that Trump’s emergency powers will one day be weapons in the hands of Harris/Warren/Biden/Sanders/AOC? (They do, actually, but fear of the president seems to be a stronger force, at least for now.)

Prospect writer Sam Tanenhaus and Niskanen senior fellow Aurelian Craiutu suggested that moderation isn’t a political platform itself, but an act of judgement in leadership. It’s not a noun but a verb, as Tanenhaus put it. So why don’t our politicians moderate?

It could be that it’s not in their best interests. Gerrymandering, the might of big-money donors, media stove-piping, social media bubbles, and a thousand other systemic failures could be at fault. Probably all of them are, to some degree.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair rejected the idea that moderation is out of favor. “Moderation hasn’t been rejected by the voters,” he insisted, “It’s just not on offer at the moment.” He left little doubt as to why. “Ordinary career politicians stagger between confusion and courage… Today’s politicians are in a defensive crouch.” If he didn’t use the exact phrase “failure of leadership,” he came close.

David Frum offered a theory on a recent podcast: The halcyon mid-20th – century days of bipartisanship happened to coincide with the dominance of war heroes in Congress. “For 40 years we had a Congress in which – at first it was dominated by veterans, and later, even as the veterans began to fade out – where the veterans had the most prestige,” he said. “You had a secret hierarchy. You had people in Congress who had been very brave during the war, and they would have, then, a prestige.”

They also had a sense of patriotism that transcended party. They served under FDR and Eisenhower. In 1971, almost three-quarters of Congress had served in the armed forces, but the ranks of veterans steadily declined to just 30 percent in 2001. Through that span, the number of veterans in Congress was far higher than veterans’ share of the overall population: Almost half of American men had some military experience in 1970, compared with just one-quarter in 2000. (Statistics for women are unavailable.)

If the veterans in Congress brought a special gravity and responsibility to Congress they reflected their constituencies, as they must in a republic. The political-psychological effects of military service – fellow-feeling for their fellow citizens, a common mission with the opposite party, a first-hand look at the importance of responsible politics, and some knowledge of the world beyond American shores – were shared by the population and their representatives.

The last best example of the veteran-turned-statesman is, of course, John McCain, who passed away last year. War is a terrible way to learn the basics of civics, of course. Maybe we should find another, kinder teacher. And soon.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.