In Defense of Moderates

With the primaries in full swing, candidates from both extremes (and their supporters) are busy attempting to paint their competitors for their respective party's nomination as moderates. The Republican party neutered its moderates long ago, when unadulterated hatred for the Black Usurper in the White House became the first - and only - qualification of being a Republican.

But some on the Left have been seeking the same trend for a while, wanting to push out moderates from the Democratic party and make the party into a weapon for angry fights with the GOP rather than a vehicle of progress. Like the Tea Party takeover of the GOP, this cadre of the Left cares more about winning a pillow fight than winning an election, more about bloodying their opponents than forging a path forward. This Left swath's adulation has culminated on Bernie Sanders, whose actual record of progressivism, at best, is incomplete.

Both extremes see moderates as wishy-washy, weak compromisers that lack a moral core. This moral core, according to the extremists, is defined by a fundamentalist loyalty to ideological rigidity, and a blind adulation for whichever candidate happens to the bona fide deity of the day for that fundamentalist rigidity.

A Funny Gateskeeper of Progressivism

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders, the Left's current deity, released a slew of posts on Twitter that amounted to casting Hillary Clinton out of the True Progressive Religion (TM) that he is now the messiah of. He conveniently left out his own inadequacies on progressive issues, of course, like the utter inability to address racial injustice distinctly from economic inequality, a health care plan to end abortion access for poor and working women, numerous votes against gun violence victims (votes against the Brady bill and to protect gun manufacturers), and his vote to protect an armed, racist border militia group.

Nonetheless, his point - one that he reiterated in last night's CNN Town Hall in New Hampshire - was that one cannot be both a moderate and a progressive. Hillary Clinton, said Saint Bernie, is a moderate (not that there's anything wrong with that, he condescendingly added), not a progressive. Clinton countered, saying she is a progressive who gets things done.

I not-so-humbly submit that not only is moderation a necessity for progressives to get things done, moderates are a key part of the progress we make - not only because self-identified liberals have yet to form a quarter of American voters, but because moderates play a key role in ensuring the future success of progressive legislation.

What is Progressive? What is a Moderate?

As has been pointed out here numerous times, progressive doesn't mean anything without progress. To make progress, holding rallies on college campuses and yelling about income inequality are not enough. It takes hard work, the ability to identify common goals with people who are not ideologically co-aligned, and critically, the willingness and ability to compromise. Just harping on purity and rejecting some progress because it in your opinion is not enough progress can make you an ideologue, a debater, a critic, and even an advocate, but it cannot make you a progressive.

This is why moderates are more important in the progressive movement than they are to conservatives. While I don't identify as a moderate in politics, I can say this: moderates are not people who lack a moral core, but rather those who reject extremism and believe that contemporary solutions to contemporary problems lie somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

Moderates may not always be pioneers on issues of the greatest moral importance, but they are the ones who are persuadable. They may not have believed in marriage equality from the start, but it was Democrats willing to persuade them that we should not write discrimination into the Constitution that kept the Federal Marriage Amendment from passing and forever wiping out the hope of legalizing marriage equality.

Moderates may not be for socialized medicine, but the vast progress we have made in health coverage since Medicare - namely children's health insurance and insurance reform under Obamacare - were only possible because people who did not see themselves necessarily aligned with any given political ideology too had children, neighbors, parents and friends who were being denied health coverage.

Another - perhaps a more accurate - way to describe moderates is they are people who use different framesets to look at different problems. Someone may be pro-choice, in favor of expanding health care through public programs and universal preschool and yet believe in an interventionist foreign policy. Someone may believe that global warming must be dealt with urgently and yet believe in charter schools and testing. Moderates may in most circumstances - certainly Democratic moderates - may be described as partial progressives.

Why Moderation - and Moderates - Are Inextricable Partners in Progress

The Democratic party, first and foremost, is a party of ideas. That is why it's a big tent  party. There are liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, and yes, even conservative Democrats. Unlike the GOP, the Democratic Party is not an ideological monolith, and neither should be anyone seeking to be its standard bearer. Moderates play a critical role in the Democratic party's capacity to govern.

First, moderates ground us. They ask the questions ideological thinking often misses. They remind think tanks of the realities of the kitchen table. They force us to ask for each policy proposal whether it will actually make real people's lives better rather than just help us "fight" our perceived enemies in the "establishment." They raise the issues of "what if?" that are so critical in formulating practical legislation, not just white papers.

Even when progressives need to advance policies without a broad consensus of moderates, listening to and addressing the concerns of the moderates makes it more likely that what passed as partisan today will become mainstream tomorrow, endure and be expanded. This is how broad social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, student assistance, children's health insurance, and finally, the Affordable Care Act were enacted.

Moderates do not want revolution, but they are open to evolution - significant changes that over time add up to big transformations. I can see how that is problematic for BernieBros to accept, but that is how change happens - this is how progress takes place.

And because moderates are part of this story of progress, they too can be progressives. Progress is not an ideology, it is a process. For progressives, it is a process of building a society with greater justice, better health, equal opportunity, broader prosperity, unity within diversity, greater cooperation, fewer conflicts. Anyone who is a partner in that journey is helping us make progress, moderates included.

The Democratic Party Must Embrace Moderates

Despite my comfort with the self-definition of a progressive and a liberal I am tired of seeing fellow Democrats who identify as moderates being cornered or squeezed out of our party. I am tired of the Left's fundamentalists vilifying moderates and attempting to make 'moderate' a dirty word in the Democratic primary. I am tired of seeing a woman who has served the cause of progress all her life being crucified for her pragmatic approach by those who prefer podium pounding over making progress.

This is a critical moment in this history of the Democratic party. We must not be swept into the hands of ideological extremists. If we do, we stand to lose our identity not just as the big tent party, but as the progressive party. Moderates must have a voice in our party. Moderate voices cannot be shut out of the Democratic party.

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