Part 1: Introduction and Assertions One and Two:
It has taken less than a month for the newly sworn in Republicans to show their determination to overreach their falsely perceived conservative mandate. It seems we are destined to see a sequel to this bad movie every two years. In election after election, voters seek to balance the excesses of one ideology, only to see the most extreme wing of the party that won by default insist that the voters have endorsed their long held positions. (Hint: these are only cosmetically different from the same policies that were voted down in the last election where they were in power.)
And every two years the same opportunity remains unrealized; the possibility that either extreme could unite with the center to exclude the most extreme policies of the other for a long time. Moderate progressives could beat the far right in almost every election, just as moderate conservatives could reduce liberals to a small fringe on the left. It seems that Republicans are making a choice against seizing the middle ground for the 2012 election, and Barack Obama has set his course on holding that ground. This would seem to be a real advantage for the Democrats were it not for the still struggling economy and some pretty terrible math for Democrats in the Senate. (The math favors the Democrats in the House.)
All that would have to happen for Democrats to seize the open ground at the center of the electorate would be for the party’s left wing to make peace with the moderates — and vice versa. But there can be no peace without mutual respect and a working through of political philosophies. Some liberals reject this approach as a watering down of their philosophy publically doubting, even openly declaring, that no moderate philosophy even exists. This raises an important question:
Is there a philosophy of the center?
First of all the questions has to be understood in some context. People might casually assert that there are well developed philosophies of the right and the left and then spend hours, or perhaps years, arguing over the attempts at the definitions that would ensue. Certainly what we call the “left” or the “right” in the United States is quite different from what one would hear in conversations in Europe, Latin America, or Africa, or Asia, but even limiting the discussion to U.S. politics does not make simple definitions of liberalism or conservatism fall from the sky. There are multiple academic centers, think tanks, and publications on both sides asserting their claim on the true understanding of their movements but neither the Urban Institute, nor Mother Jones Magazine, nor the Labor Unions (to name just a few) would defer to the others’ authority to define liberalism, and there are comparable competing institutions and factions on the right.
The center is even less well defined. One can argue that there are a huge number of institutions and publications that tacitly define the center, lumping in many academic institutions and perhaps all of the “main stream media.” That people of different political orientations can argue about whether, for example, The New York Times is far left, far right, or hopelessly centrist just serves to illuminate the subjectivity of these categories, but none of these organizations and institutions is actively claiming to define a centrist philosophy or morality.
A few organizations have taken on elements of this challenge. Moderate Republicans have the Rippon Society and while moderate Democrats no longer have the Democratic Leadership Counsel, they still have the Progressive Policy Institute it spun off and Third Way, each making the case for moderation from a partisan perspective. The new comer No Labels organization has not yet produced much in the way of a philosophy to define its anti-partisan stance, but in it’s web pages there are a few attempts to do a bit more than just embellish their “not left, not right, forward” slogan.
“There is No Centrist Philosophy.”
Recently there have been several assertions from many points on the compass, that moderates are lacking any centrist philosophy of their own. None of these more heartfelt than New York Times columnist David Brooks expressing his frustration with the center on the PBS News Hour on May 24 after Arlen Specter lost to Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary.
“Arlen Specter is symptomatic of a problem, which is that there is no centrist philosophy. People in the center should be able to say, ‘We’ve got big budget deficits, out of control, and here is our agenda.’ And yet the center has not developed that. People who consider themselves moderates have not developed that philosophy. And so a lot of people who look like centrists and who seem basically centrist like Arlen Specter just seem like opportunists. So there’s no system there. So if you are an angry person, you’re angry at the way Washington’s spending. You’re angry at the way its violating your values. Well your choices, if you want someone tough and strong who knows what they believe, you’re choices are pretty much on the extremes.”
More recently, liberal linguist and author, George Lakeoff opened his January 25, 2011 Huffington Post with another rejection of the existence of a centrist philosophy.
“There is no ideology of the ‘center.’ What is called a ‘centrist’ or a ‘moderate’ is actually very different — a bi-conceptual, someone who is conservative on some issues and progressive on others, in many, many possible combinations.”
This was published to the Internet just days after another New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, left the majority of Americans out of his “Tail of Two Moralities.” (Our response to Krugman is here.)
Lakeoff and Krugman are essentially taking the same position; that liberals have principles (the correct ones) and conservatives have principles (the wrong ones) but moderates lack any principles at all. Moderates compromise, split the difference, and appear to Brooks to be opportunists. To sum up this view in a single one word: we wish we had a nickel for every time a blogger modified the word “moderate” with the word “spineless.”
Rather than take offense, we have the option to look carefully at the assertion Brooks, Lakeoff and Krugman are making. They can be forgiven for holding these views if no one has articulated a centrist or moderate philosophy to their satisfaction. The results of a Google search of “moderate political philosophy” are far short of impressive. We are sure we missed some good ones and all readers are invited to suggest any laudable efforts to define centrism in the comments below, but to start off the discussion, we decided to put the following thoughts together.
We cannot speak for all of those Americans who call their political views “moderate,” a category that is roughly as large as the number who call their views “conservative” and substantially larger than the number who label themselves “liberals.” Indeed, it should be understood that the authors of this Draft “Moderate Manifesto” identify themselves as “liberals” as often as we describe our views as “moderate.” In this sense (and in finding value in some “conservative” positions) we may be closer to Lakeoff’s bi-conceptuals (or even tri-conceptuals). For several years we have been editing the website CenteredPolitics.com which is designed to find common ground between liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats, a coalition that is a necessary condition for Democrats to win elections. We can only speak for ourselves and perhaps plant a seed that others can water and nourish.
What follows are some assertions that could make up the elements of a Moderate Manifesto:
Assertion One: To Esteemed Philosophers, Moderation is, in and of itself, a Moral Good. The view that moderation, centrism, balance, and the “middle path” is a moral good is nearly as old as organized thought. This was the position taken by some of the earliest and most influential thinkers of both the Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. In the Western tradition the view is particularly associated with Socrates (469 BC–399 BCE) who taught that a man “must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible” and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) through his concept of the Golden Mean. In the Eastern philosophical traditions, the view is strongly associated with the Taoism of Lau Tzu, who may have lived about the time of Aristotle or perhaps as many as two centuries earlier. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote in Chinese characters that are variously translated into English, “For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation” (#59, Stephen Mitchell translation).
By comparison, our contemporary American understandings of liberalism and conservatism are quite young. The positions we most strongly associate with liberalism and conservatism today may date only as far back as the last century, or perhaps be traceable to debates of the American Founding Fathers or even 16th, 17th and 18th century European philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). But as far back as you would look for the intellectual antecedents of the liberal and conservative moral philosophies, you will find centuries earlier some of philosophy’s rock-stars making the case for moderation.
Assertion Two: Humans are Fallible and Overconfident: Moderates’ views are based in life experience, observations about human nature, and the rise and fall of great nations. The Conservative and Liberal philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke are famous for making assertions about human nature, that people exist in either a “state of grace” or a brutish “state of nature,” and connecting their political philosophy to these beliefs. Moderates also have observations about people and believe that it is the nature of people to be fallible.
We look at the people we see and find that many people are correct about some things and incorrect about others. People make mistakes. “Stuff happens.” We see a world that is too complex for anyone to understand all of it, so people tend to be selective about the information they pursue and retain. Conservatives choose their news sources to support their views and hold on to every example, real or imagined, where government makes an error or makes things more difficult for people or for business. Liberals choose their own news sources and hold on to every example, real or imagined, where business makes an error or treats people unfairly. It is easy to find people who have mastered their arguments but rare to find someone who really has a balanced perspective about any single issue let alone the full complexity of all the challenges the country is facing.
Aware that even true experts, and certainly non-experts generally over-estimate their knowledge, that scenarios and budget projections often prove to have been rosy, and that untended consequences often follow grand schemes, moderates value the ability to listen with an open mind to new ideas and varying perspectives. An imbalance in this direction could lead to a paralysis of analysis, but moderates look to find the right balance between contemplation and action and are willing to act decisively when warranted. In all actions moderates are looking for the proper balance of intellect and emotion; clear perception and empathy; self interest and perspective; male and female; Yin and Yang.
Part 2 will be posted here soon.
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