Where Are the Moderates?

Political pundits love centrism and moderate candidates. But political movements are built on desire for broad change.

Anne Applebaum says her “heart sank” when she heard of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which she is terming the “Million Moderate March.”

This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word “moderate” has now come to mean “liberal” or even “left-wing” in American politics. It has been a long time since “moderate” Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party: Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors. “Moderate” Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist: In their place, we have “conservative Democrats.” Nobody pays attention to them either — unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against health-care reform. And then he is vilified.


I’m sure his Million Moderate March, if it happens, will be amusing, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun by calling it “tragic.” But if that’s the best the center can do, then “blackly humorous” wouldn’t be that far off.

First off, Stewart’s rally isn’t about organizing political centrists into some coherent movement; it’s a gimmick for a niche audience comedy show.   And, to the extent that there’s a political message, it isn’t “Elect liberal Democrats” but rather “Can we turn down the thermostat on our political rhetoric just a skosh?”

As to her larger point, Applebaum argues that there’s “no lack of interesting people in the political center.” But Michael Bloomberg is the only one she names.  And, frankly, national pundits seem to be the only ones finding him interesting.

The fact of the matter is that centrism simply isn’t an organizing principle in politics. Theoretically, at least, Duverger’s Law says that a system such as ours produces two and only two viable parties — which has in fact been the case, with rare one-cycle aberrations — and that these parties will tend to be relatively centrist catch-all parties. But the parties will be animated by their ideologically motivated base and seek to win election by simultaneously motivating them to turn out in large numbers and appealing to a plurality of the voters.

Are most Americans centrists?  Sure.  By definition in fact:  the “center” is a moving target based on the prevailing political culture, attitudes, and norms.   Some things that were wildly liberal in recent memory (that married women should have careers, that blacks and whites should be allowed to marry, that divorce should carry no stigma, that homosexuals should be allowed to live their lives openly) are now centrist ideas.   Ditto some things that were wildly conservative (we should have a massive standing army, the top marginal tax rate should be under 40%).

But no one yet has figured out how to create a political movement out of appealing to the center.   Centrists, by their very nature, are only marginally interested in politics.   And they lack a coherent agenda aside from rejecting the extreme positions of both sides.   But it’s hard to build an agenda out of that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Franklin says:

    Instead of ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist’, what do you think of when you hear ‘independent’? Many of us have some fairly strong views on certain issues, but they’re a mix of liberal and conservative positions.

  2. jfoobar says:

    I can’t say that I am very fond of “independent” either, in that the term seems to rule out any sort of cohesive movement representing those views in the future.

    I am convinced that there are many millions of “moderates” out there who are fairly conservative fiscally and on the liberal side of moderate on social issues yet do care a great deal about politics…or would if they were not so disgusted with the whole charade as of late.

    If only a cohesive movement could spring up around these people. If nothing else, I suspect they would have the most grammatically-correct protest signs of any major political group.

  3. Andre Kenji says:

    The problem of these moderate, centrists and independents is that they are, well, descentralized as it gets. They include Democrats like Bart Stupak(That is liberal is most issues, with exception of abortion and gay marriage) and Kathleen Sebelius and Republicans like Lincoln Chafee. They don´t agree on anything, so, there is no way about creating a central organization to fund nationwide campaigns. There is no way about creating a moderate Tea Party Express or a moderate Move On.
    (There is also the problem that Southern Democrats faced in Presidential Elections: the Democrats with better credentials to face a General Election never managed to win the primaries).

    Create restrictions to people funding campaigns in districts and states where they do not live and then moderates are going to surge. Create restrictions to these political organizations like Move On, unions and Tea Party Express. What killed Mike Castle in Delaware was outside money. That´s what kills most moderates.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The further complication is that the path to prominence in either political party is via fund-raising and it’s darned hard to be a successful fundraiser through an appeal to moderation. Quite to the contrary you tend to have an ever increasing number of partisan firebrands appealing to the most extreme factions in their party, frequently convinced that they speak for the majority.

  5. john personna says:

    I think I’ve told the story that I had a hiking buddy who was a moderate Democrat. I was a moderate Republican. The interesting thing about 5 mile conversations was that we’d each start from very different philosophical positions, but come around to very similar concrete policies. That’s probably a good metaphor for how moderation, centrism, and pragmatism should work. You may believe in individual initiative first, or in societal responsibilities first, but when the rubber meets the road it should be a policy that works. It should be a policy that works with the mix of people we find in our society.

    I’m an independent now and like the label. It means to me that I’m not buying into the full package from either party. It’s too much like “choose B, get egg-roll” when you don’t want an egg-roll.

    Now, I don’t get the Stewart thing. I don’t think he’s simply doing it for entertainment, but I don’t think he’s really risen to anything else either.

    In terms of what we need … it’s policies that work. That will either come from partisans who can be pragmatic, or because independents fill the vacuum.

  6. Lou Shea says:

    The problem with calling yourself a moderate or independent, is that it has no political party…and no one to vote for in closed primaries. In states with closed primaries, as a moderate or independent voter you are stuck with whoever the political parties select as their candidates.

    I like voting for candidates in primary elections, so I register as a Democrat in order to vote in their primaries. Then in the following General or Nov. elections I vote for whoever I hope will represent my interests best.

  7. Jim Treacher says:

    And, to the extent that there’s a political message, it isn’t “Elect liberal Democrats” but rather “Can we turn down the thermostat on our political rhetoric just a skosh?”

    Well, the other rally is sarcastically titled “Keep Fear Alive.” Because the people they disagree with are fearmongers. Not to mention crazy, which is why the good guys need to “Restore Sanity.” I’m not sure that’s nudging the thermostat in the right direction.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Treacher: Neither Stewart nor Colbert make any secret that they’re left-leaning Democrats. But they both skewer Democratic crazies, too. I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s been a ridiculous amount of heated rhetoric from the out party the last several years.

  9. Jim Treacher says:

    I don’t see them holding rallies to mock Democratic crazies.

  10. Gerry W. says:

    Somehow, I find centrists outside the political parties. Fareed Zakaria comes up with a centrist view and platform. It is very appealing and should strike a cord to make our country better. Why no one in the political arena is not catching on beats me.

    How to restore the American Dream.


  11. memomachine says:


    1. An Independent is someone who doesn’t believe in anything strongly enough to make a difference.

    2. A Moderate is someone who espouses a political opinion while they’re busy doing something else they feel is far more important.

    3. Because an Independent & a Moderate agree on a policy doesn’t mean that policy is actually either viable or possible.

    4. Really what is a “moderate” position these days? Let’s say on taxation. The Conservative pov is that lower taxes invigorates the private sector that results in a better economy. Liberals believe that spending by anybody is the same regardless so a huge public sector and a very small and anemic private sector are OK. What precisely is the “moderate” position then?

    Don’t tax me too much but pay for every bloody social program I can think of on my wish list?

  12. Gerry W. says:

    A good moderate position is one in which we invest in our country, in our people, and in the future

    Unfortunately, there is no moderate position and any other positions of the left or right is not working.


  13. Franklin says:

    Fareed Zakaria comes up with a centrist view and platform.

    Having read one of his books (The Post American World, a title more provocative than the actual contents), I tend to agree with about 90% of what that guy says, and that’s a lot. I haven’t read that article yet, I shall do so momentarily.

    But people like him never get any attention because they’re reasonable. Same reason this blog doesn’t get the same hits as RedState or the DailyKos.

  14. reid says:

    “I don’t see them holding rallies to mock Democratic crazies.”

    That’s because the Republican crazies are much crazier and more numerous than the Democractic crazies. Isn’t that obvious?

  15. Gerry W. says:

    Charlie Rose had Arianna Huffington and others on, and Fareed Zakaria on after that. It was a good hour of info.


  16. reid says:

    memomachine: Your #4 is highly biased, of course; but the moderate position at this point in time is surely that taxes have been so low for so long that they no longer stimulate the economy. Combine that with a high deficit, and the answer is a compromise where the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, leaving everyone else a higher portion to spend to, at the least, not further deflate demand. But that’s just my take.

  17. John Personna says:

    Memomachine, an immoderate is someone who would rather posture than solve problems.

    Either that or they are so foolish as to believe posturing solves problems.

  18. André Kenji says:

    Fareed Zakaria in fact is the typical Third World neoliberal. 😉

  19. john personna says:

    Bill Gross’ Investment Letter seems related:

    They say a country gets the politicians it deserves or perhaps it deserves the politicians it gets. Whatever the order, America is next in line, and as we go to the polls in a few short days it’s incumbent upon a sleepy and befuddled electorate to at least ask ourselves, “What’s going on here?” Democrat or Republican, Elephant or Donkey, nothing much ever seems to change. Each party has shown it can add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt with little to show for it or move our military from one country to the next chasing phantoms instead of focusing on more serious problems back home. This isn’t a choice between chocolate and vanilla folks, it’s all rocky road: a few marshmallows to get you excited before the election, but with a lot of nuts to ruin the aftermath


  20. mannning says:

    I’ll take Republican Nuts over Democratic Nuts any day, and trust that their leadership will beat the opposition, help to preserve our freedoms, avoid the tyranny that lurks in the Leftist’s heart, and believe the Republicans are more honest and open, by and large. Yes, it is a belief set that would be hard to justify .

  21. Gerry W. says:

    Then, what we see is an oligarchy and theocracy. I have seen nothing good with the Bush tax cuts as we have seen our jobs go overseas. The middle class is being trashed. It is more tax cuts and laissez-faire. And the middle class gets ignored.

  22. Gerry W. says:

    The question was “Where are the Moderates?

    And it is true, there is no “character” like a Limbaugh or a Beck. And there is no media like FOX. There are moderates out there, but they have not stepped up to the plate. And they are being trashed by those who want to divide and conquer.

    I will leave with the quote from President Eisenhower.

    “People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable. Actually, all human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas. Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all about the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”