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July 08, 2014 3:31 PM Moderation in the Pursuit of Policies Is No Virtue

By Ed Kilgore

At Vox Ezra Klein’s posted a summary of some new research by UC-Berekley political scientists David Broockman and Douglas Ahler that’s going to be cited (and probably attacked; I suspect the folks at Third Way are already preparing a response) an awful lot in forthcoming arguments over electoral strategy and intraparty disputes. It suggests that the whole idea of a vast (or even medium-sized) sea of “moderate” voters left under-represented by ideologue-dominated major parties is an illusion based on the misperception that people who dissent from party orthodoxies do so from a “centrist” position, when more often they harbor “extreme” opinions that don’t neatly fall into partisan baskets. Here’s a sample of Ezra’s summary:

Digging into a 134-issue survey, Broockman and coauthor Doug Ahler find that 70.1 percent of all respondents, and 71.3 percent of self-identified moderates, took at least one position outside the political mainstream. Moderates, in other words, are just as likely as anyone else to hold extreme positions: it’s just that those positions don’t all line up on the left or the right….
There’s even reason to believe “average voters” — which is to say, less politically engaged voters — hold more extreme opinions: engaged Democrats and Republicans tend to adopt the positions held by their parties, and parties tend to adopt positions that are popular, achievable and workable. So voters who follow their parties end up pushing ideas in the political mainstream. Voters who aren’t as interested in politics and who don’t attach themselves to a party push the ideas they actually like, irrespective of whether they’re popular or could attract 60 votes in the Senate or would be laughed at by policy experts.
The other problem is that the term “moderate” makes it sound like there’s one kind of moderate — which is where the idea emerges that there’s some silent moderate majority out there waiting for their chance to take back politics. But someone who believes in punitively taxing the rich and criminalizing homosexuality is not going to form a coalition with someone who believes in low taxes and gay marriage, even though both of these voters would look moderate on a survey.

Now unless I’m missing something, while this research does cast fresh doubt on the idea of a hidden constituency for a “moderate” agenda or third party that wants to focus on entitlement reform or deficit reduction or some particular sort of bipartisan “grand bargain,” it doesn’t necessarily disprove the existence of “swing voters” who can be harvested by clever strategies other than shouting the party line more loudly than the other side. Voters who have conflicted “liberal” and “conservative” views might be receptive to an appeal that scratches one ideological “itch” while spreading balm on another. That was, in fact, a big part of the Clinton strategy in both 1992 and 1996: “moderating” (or as New Democrats said, “modernizing,” which is different) past Democratic positions on issues where the party was faring poorly, which liberated voters who leaned Democratic on other issues to pull the Donkey lever. So this research doesn’t necessarily make election strategy simpler or more satisfying to consistent liberals or conservatives.

But yes, it is far past time to put to rest the idea there is some sort of moderate ideology identified with the views of Mike Bloomberg or Thomas Friedman or Jon Huntsman or the Bowles-Simpson Commission that would sweep the country if only the cowardly and unimaginative party hacks would embrace it. As Ezra suggests, the notion that a “silent majority” of “moderates” is waiting to be mobilized against both parties by enlightened elites is almost entirely backwards. Broockman would go further:

“When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want,” Broockman says. “Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”

Regular readers understand that I don’t buy this idea that us virtuous lefties and the Tea Folk share an anticorporate agenda; I’d personally rather be governed, if I have to be, by Republican Establishment hacks serving the interests of the Fortune 500 than by ideologues who think liberal Protestants are Satanists or that the Medicaid program is slavery imposed by theft. But in the end, we’re at a point in political history where at some point America needs to choose a stable and internally coherent governing ideology for a while. Trying to govern via some sort of mushy middle path is not only a recipe for policy disaster, but anti-(small-d)democratic as well.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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