One of Fair Observer’s featured articles this week is a piece by Neil Kapoor, a high school student with a definite talent for journalism. Analyzing the data available concerning US elections, he has delivered a persuasive, though not an entirely convincing argument in favor of the idea that Democrats “should vote for a moderate” in the 2020 presidential primaries.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A politician who takes positions vague enough for the widest range of people to suppose that they might agree with whatever policies that politician ends up supporting and acting on
Merriam-Webster gives two principal definitions to the word moderate — “avoiding extremes of behavior or expression: observing reasonable limits” and, grouped together, “tending toward the mean or average amount or dimension,” along with “having average or less than average quality.” The first applies to ethics and behavioral science and cannot justifiably be applied to issues of public policy. The second is purely statistical. Its lack of relevance to politics is revealed by the synonym the dictionary proposes: mediocre.
The core of the problem when considering a moderate position in politics lies in determining whether “moderate” means “reasonable” or “average.” As soon as we relate it to a specific issue, the exercise becomes extremely slippery. Moderation implies a linear scale that theoretically contains two extremes. But the human problems that politics attempts to deal with rarely take a form that can be represented by linear logic. The unanswerable question then becomes: How do you define the extremes?
Take the question of justice. It would be totally logical to say that capital punishment represents one extreme and total leniency (forgiveness of any crime) the other. Nothing can be more final than execution and nothing less definitive than total leniency. Yet in the US, capital punishment doesn’t appear to be extreme because it is the norm. How, in this case, can we define a moderate position? Or do we tend to accept the existing norm — the status quo — as providing the definition of moderate? If so, defending an extreme (capital punishment) can characterize a moderate position.
The trick when arguing in favor of moderation consists of beating your opponent to the punch by specifying what you think are extremes. Thus the problem in such debates turns out to be the lack of a common understanding of what are the extremes. The easiest tack is to call something an extreme because it deviates from the status quo. This amounts to a commitment to the assumption that the status quo is, if not always good, at least reassuring.
The implicit reference to the status quo becomes problematic when we consider a complex question such as climate change. Because at one extreme, libertarians want no constraints on what people produce and consume and, at the other extreme, green militants want to suppress the production and use of fossil fuels, the “moderate” position would be to defend the status quo, in which some constraints exist.
Even then, this moderate position can signify two things: doing nothing at all about climate change because one considers the current set of behaviors as normative, or doing the minimum to maintain things as much as possible the way they are today — i.e., not allow them to become worse. But one salient feature of the state of the climate today is that things are constantly becoming worse. In that case, something “extremely” different than the status quo may become not just desirable, but necessary. The moderate position then becomes extreme, or at least extremely risky.
So, what is the moderate position to take on any issue? It may well be true that voters in a democracy prefer to preserve things the way they are today, but when the way they are is always getting worse, is it reasonable to be moderate? What Kapoor and others seem to be saying is that moderation means to look forward but go slow. But some problems require immediate action. You can’t slowly put out a fire.
But Kapoor’s thesis isn’t about issues. It is about political power. His argument makes sense to anyone who assumes, as many people do in the US, that politics is about parties winning elections rather than actions that ensure good government. That in itself could be considered an extreme position, with good governance at one extreme and wielding power at the other. The reason Kapoor cites for selecting a moderate Democrat is less about adopting reasonable policies than the goal of assuming power. The quest for power for its own sake can be considered an extreme position.
All this is to say that on one scale of values, moderation becomes an extreme.
In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater famously said: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The fact that Goldwater was roundly defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in the November election may stand as historical proof that moderation pays off in elections. In the famous “daisy ad” showing a little girl in a field pulling petals off her daisy before the image fades to the countdown for a nuclear explosion, Johnson painted himself as a moderate by exaggerating Goldwater’s embrace of destructive “extremism.”
In the ad, we hear Johnson’s voice: “You make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.” Less than a year later, President Johnson began taking extreme measures in the “defense of liberty” for South Vietnam’s government. Under false pretenses, he began a war that sent the US not just “into the dark” but into the “heart of darkness,” while depriving many of “God’s children” of life, including 50,000 of America’s own.
Moderation got Johnson elected and it’s true that he refrained from nuking Vietnam. But few would call his war policy moderate. And, in 1968, after the physical elimination of the extremists Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the moderate Hubert Humphrey lost to the more extremist Richard Nixon.
Fast forward to George W. Bush who painted himself as a compassionate conservative, an epithet invented to signify “moderate.” Bush ended up showing the same kind of compassion for the lives of God’s children as Johnson had, sacrificing them in similar numbers, when he launched the wars that have continued to rage, even throughout the eight years of the “moderate” Barack Obama.
War has long been the norm for the US, a nation that has “been at war 93% of the time” in its history. By that standard, peace is an extremist position. This is borne out today by the fact that all the Democrats labeled as “moderates” seem comfortable with the existing military-industrial-intelligence complex and a consistent foreign policy that reflects the commitment to actions of force (that inevitably turn into wars) in the name of Goldwater’s “defense of liberty.” Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, the “extreme leftist,” embraces America’s and its allies’ bellicosity. She has “gone along with some of the most belligerent acts that have occurred under her watch, cheerleading Israel’s devastating 2014 war on Gaza and vocalizing her support for sanctions against Venezuela,” Sarah Lazare writes.
With a discretionary budget for the military of around $700 billion for a population of 327 million, compared to China’s military budget of $175 billion for a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the US (on a par with Saudi Arabia) spends around $2,000 per capita on its military and China less than $130. Turkey, a militarily aggressive nation with a population of 80 million, spends $19 billion on its military. From a statistical point of view, the US is clearly an extremist nation.
If one were to seek a statistical mean in terms of military spending between the US and Turkey, factoring in the cost per capita, the budget that represented a “moderate” level of spending for the US population would be around $350 billion, half of what it is today. Is a candidate, like Joe Biden, who endorses what is objectively an extremist foreign policy a moderate?
The point is that the notion of “moderate” in politics has come to mean little more than defending and preserving the status quo. This has contributed to the permanent drama of US politics, in which the status quo includes an expensive and invasive security state, growing inequality, various social crises, endemic racism and an economic system designed — thanks to the unquestioned belief in the profit motive — to degrade the environment. And though, as Kapoor points out elsewhere, it is possible for some entrepreneurs to profit through investments that aim at improving the environment, the decision-makers and power mongers at the core of the economy will resist any call to redesign the ever-profitable tools that degrade it. There will be no tipping point toward a “capitalistic virtuous cycle” other than through the kind of constraint that capitalists call socialism, which they consider a denial of their identity.
Among Democrats, the question is simple: You are either for the status quo or ready to challenge it (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard). There is no mean between the two. Moderates may want to improve the status quo, but not only do they refuse to challenge its dynamic principles, they are committed to preserving it. The real question only the extremists ask is this: Does it merit being preserved and protected?
The long and the short of it is that the term “moderate” should be used with moderation. And it should never become an article of belief or a criterion for judging political positions.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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