Attack of radical "moderates": How Tea Party & liberals are both being swindled

The idea that most Americans are "moderates" who share an agenda is absurd -- and the belief in it is disastrous

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 2, 2015 11:29AM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz                  (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP)
Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/AP)

If there's one article of faith in the political establishment it's that being a political "moderate" is the only appropriate philosophy for people of good sense and mature disposition. No one possessed of even a modicum of rationality and logic could possibly hold a set of values or political positions that fall entirely on one side of the political divide or the other because that would mark him as a fanatic of some sort. And that would be very bad indeed. It might even be considered (shudder) partisan.

And if one is wise enough to be such a moderate, one naturally believes that negotiation and bipartisan agreement are achievable by people of good faith by simply sitting down and hammering out a reasonable compromise. After all, moderates have the kind of even temperament that naturally seeks comity and common ground.  The problems in our politics are due entirely to the hot-headed partisans at both ends of the political spectrum who refuse to behave like adults.

Imagine how surprised the establishment wags must have been to see this Vox story by Ezra Klein reporting that political scientists have determined the vaunted moderate voter is actually an incoherent extremist who cannot possibly be appeased because her views are irrational. Seriously.

Klein writes that a new study reveals:

[S]urveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions. The way it works is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they're left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle — and so they're labeled as moderate. But when you drill down into those individual answers you find a lot of opinions that are well out of the political mainstream. "A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British," Broockman said in July 2014. "A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process. You'll often see really draconian measures towards gays and lesbians get 16 to 20 percent support. These people look like moderates but they're actually quite extreme."

One might have thought it would be completely obvious that people who hold inconsistent and extreme views are not moderates but apparently this bizarre misapprehension is due to a poll coding error, an error that has had very profound repercussions for politics in this country. As Klein notes, election reforms around the country have been designed around the idea that systems that remove those nasty partisans, such as the jungle primary process in California, will result in more moderate elected officials. Political scientists have been puzzled as to why that hasn't worked out. This new study answers the questions: because these supposed "moderate" voters don't want moderate representation. (Now they tell us ...)

Klein also makes a point that cannot be overstated:

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.

This article was reminiscent of an anecdotal report from the field filed by Chris Hayes a decade ago in the wake of the Bush-Kerry campaign.  He canvassed swing voters who  were still undecided in the last few days of the campaign and found that they were more than just idiosyncratic in worldview, they were actually unaware of what political issues were:

More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number... But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to... So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?" These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political."

The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

He pointed out that this is problematic for Democrats who are always confused by the fact that the electorate agrees with them on the issues while often voting for Republicans who campaign on themes like character and values. Perhaps these voters simply don't realize that they agree with the Democrats on the issues because they don't know what the issues actually are. And it's also possible that the vaunted moderates who seem not to have coherent political philosophy make voting decisions with similarly unpredictable thought processes.

None of this is to say that the only voters with any sense are partisans who blindly follow the party line. That has its own problems. But the belief that there exists a majority of Real Americans who just want everyone to compromise and "get the job done" is a chimera. When voters say they want everyone to get along they mean they want everyone to agree with them.

But the use of the term "moderate" does have its uses and they are not good for the country. You have to wonder why if the moderates aren't really moderate, what the point of valorizing the concept might be? The author of the study explains:

"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."

The term is used by political elites to marginalize the views of the people. And that's anything but "moderate." In fact, it's downright radical.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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America Chris Hayes Democrats Ezra Klein John Kerry Moderates Partisanship Republicans Tea Party The Left The Right