Is partisanship really the problem?

Moderate is a word that is thrown around a lot, usually by self-interested politicians who want to appear rational, reasonable, and independently minded.

Usually, you are defined as a moderate if you step outside your political party’s orthodoxy with relative frequency, and assert some opinions that are closer to those on “the other side” than those on your own.

The impression people are left with is that you occupy some kind of softer middle ground, and that you are willing to listen, that you are collaborative, and that you are interested in compromise.

But stepping outside party orthodoxy is not necessarily the right definition of moderate, is it? What if you hold a series of positions on the partisan extremes, both left and right?

The U.S. Capitol

What if you are say, a radical libertarian and believe that the income tax is immoral and should be abolished, that government spending should be slashed significantly and that the welfare state should be disassembled, but you also believe in unrestricted immigration and cutting the military budget in half?

What if you are a leftist who believes in high taxes, big government and massive stimulus spending, but you are also pro-life and believe that the US Constitution protects a fetus from being terminated?

Such hypothetical people — and I have met examples of both, so they do exist — certainly buck their ideological kin regularly, but would you really call them moderates?

Are they interested in compromise? Are they in the squishy middle? Are they collaborative by nature? Are they in a state of issue-flux, interested in working with “the other side” because their position is malleable?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions, because the answer is no. People like that are moderate about absolutely nothing, and are often times more rigid in their beliefs than even traditional partisans are.

So if that definition doesn’t work, what does?

Perhaps the right definition of moderate is a person who is a perennial “free agent” on virtually every issue, and refuses to commit to anything, appearing to agonize over every decision, and is constantly saying to themselves and other, “on the other hand …”

This person has no ideological core, and no real belief system. Their moderation is defined and identified by nothing more than their inability to commit.

They claim, of course, that this is the thinking man or woman’s philosophy. Commit to nothing, and judge every situation as it comes to you. This makes you look and sound like a fair-minded person who doesn’t pre-judge ideas. These people are willing to listen to and consider everyone. This makes them, supposedly, impartial, thoughtful referees.

But is believing in nothing an admirable, noble thing? Does it even exist?

I believe rather strongly that such a person does not exist, and that all people — like Angus King — who claim to be in this category, are misleading you for their own gain. Their indecision is phony, and meant to make them appear discerning. In reality, they have made up their mind according to a guiding philosophy, and the hemming and hawing is just for show.

And in all honesty, if such a person did somehow exist, they would not be worthy of praise. I would have a lot more respect for a committed leftist who told me what they really believed than I would have for a rudderless, vacillating politician who had no real internal compass.

In any event, whatever your definition of moderation is, it is clear there is far less of it today than there used to be. But is that really a bad thing?

Most people who complain about the loss of bipartisanship are in reality bemoaning the fact that “the other side” doesn’t agree with them more. When partisan Democrats complain about it, what they are really saying is: “The Republicans used to give in to us and come over to our side on issues, and I think they should do that more.”

They aren’t saying, “I think we should come over to the Republicans’ side more often, and compromise with them.”

And ultimately that’s the real problem with government today. Moderation is mostly false, and is something you believe the other guy should practice.

Extremists in government are not the problem, so long as they are willing to genuinely work with one another to forge actual, genuine compromises. The problem comes when fake centrism is used as cover for actual extremism, in an attempt to shame the other side into giving in to you.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.