Drew Phillips, Staff Writer
March 5th, 2017
This past general election highlighted a disregard of rules, laws, and norms from both major party candidates. The greatest violation however, was that of an institutional electoral principle: the moderating effect of the general election.
Pundits and politicos speculated, that following the primaries, both candidates would move from their fringier primary positions on issues and realign to centrist positions that tend to attract more moderate voters—as they usually do. Perhaps this did not occur because Americans are too disillusioned by our political system to make the candidates pay for their polarized positions. Or, maybe this principle didn’t kick in because of the cannibalistic nature of both parties these days. Mrs. Clinton was perceived to be forced left on her platform to pick up Sanders voters necessary for a general election win. At the same time, Mr. Trump was forced to stick to some particularly unsavory and unorthodox policy prescriptions he laid out during the Republican primaries to re-energize a majority white, male coalition, which needed to turn out in full force for him to have a chance at winning. It could be that this principle didn’t kick in simply because this was an oddity of an election year, which was highly unpredictable on multiple fronts—a notion which is certainly possible, but one I don’t find probable; this year’s anomalies seem to be indicative of a larger trend away from moderation.
To consider what moderation truly is, I looked back to a New York Times opinion piece written by David Brooks leading up to the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama. In the piece, Brooks notes that a moderate does not commit herself to “an abstract idea,” but instead holds dear her country’s way of living “and the animating principle behind that way of life.” In America, Brooks suggests, this animating principle is that “we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream—committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.”
I cannot think of a more relevant quote for the way our current political dialogue operates. The two ideas within this sentence should be read in concert, but in our newly anointed tradition of cherry-picking points to fit our current political narrative, it seems all too easy to envision a liberal using the “nation of immigrants” section to oppose President Trump’s policies, and equally simple to picture a conservative backing the “work hard and rise” portion to oppose some social justice initiative. This is problematic because we are creating an environment in political dialogue where one must pick sides; something that looks a lot like how a conversation would go between two followers of different religions trying to convince each other of their view’s legitimacy. In the simplest sense, this environment is tribal, it creates false choices and politicizes otherwise apolitical topics.
Our representatives then come to embody these tribal allegiances. As we saw in the general election, when we stick to our tribes, regardless of circumstance—which Brooks warns against—a slippery slope can develop. You may then encounter situations where even though Mr. Trump is the personal antithesis of nearly everything you stand for, he’s allegedly a Republican, your party picked him as their nominee, and it would be political suicide for you as a representative to disavow him. Or on the other side of the spectrum, Mr. Trump ends up winning on a platform of nothing less than the equivalent to a slap in the face for progressives everywhere, and you, the good Democrat you are, decide to oppose everything he puts his name on over the course of the next four years. Neither of these scenarios, both of which have occurred over the last few months, reveal a healthy political climate.
Perhaps instead, as a principled Democrat or Republican, but most of all, a principled American, you would realize that there is a more productive middle ground. As Brooks puts it: “There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.”
The way to foster moderation is to reward it in Congress and statehouses everywhere. Moderates need to organize and become a political bloc, and then most importantly, turn out in primaries and general elections — just like so many other interest groups have done throughout electoral history. As it stands now, moderates are the most underrepresented group of people in American politics.
The best solutions our society has found to problems over time have usually been those that form under the pressure of opposing interests. They have checks and balances built into them and they are connected to our country’s “animating principles,” rather than whatever flavor of the month ideology happens to be in charge in D.C. These are the solutions that keep the most citizens satisfied and they come from the citizens themselves, exercising moderation. Solutions that advertise deviations away from our American foundations tend to not be fixes at all, but instead, increases in arbitrary power–part of what got us in this mess in the first place.