Our nation’s two ideological camps frequently cast aspersions at those of us who do not subscribe to their world views. As one Texan partisan once said, “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Paul Hobby, in his new book, Glorious Tension, provides a compelling defense of moderation.
I was at dinner recently with a friend who was taking me to task for being a moderate. In his view, almost everything wrong in the country was because we had compromised too much with what he saw as the enemy camp. This particularly person was a self-described “conservative” but I have had similar conversations with my friends who describe themselves as “liberal” or “progressive.” Ideological tribalism demands absolute loyalty and anyone that does not toe the line is either morally weak or intellectually lacking.
Hobby offers the counter view, which I believe history validates: “Coexistence requires compromise. Ideology may be useful when framing an issue, but it rarely helps resolve one.” Indeed, if we look to our personal lives rather than the political arena, they are replete with compromises – with family members, business or work associates, within civic groups – literally everything in life is a series of compromises. To eschew compromise in our civic life is to deny the millennia of human cooperative history which led to our domination of the planet.
Where my ideological friends see weakness and cowering in moderation, Hobby sees moral virtue and courage. For self-described moderates, his book is a self-help guide to feeling good about moderation and sharpening its intellection, moral, and spiritual defense.
In doing so, Hobby is beginning a conversation about redefining moderation. I have frequently used the word “moderate” to describe myself, but it never really seemed fit because frankly many of my views are anything but moderate. Just ask the transit folks.
What Hobby suggests, and what I have come to believe, is that a moderate is not someone that splits the difference on every issue but is rather someone that applies a certain mindset and methodology to issues. It is a person that moderates the incoming data and evidence and arrives at conclusions without the straight jacket of an ideological framework or surrendering to confirmation bias.
Of course, that means that moderates will not always agree with each other and that is just fine. Indeed, that is the glorious tension that Hobby seeks. It is only at the ideological extremes that everyone agrees.
Where Hobby stops short in my opinion, however, is his failure to discuss the institutional changes which have led to this place where blind ideology is held up as a virtue while moderation is condemned as weakness. Granted that was not his focus. His is a call for individual action along with encouragement and counsel on moderation on a personal level. Certainly, I second such a call.
But I also believe that our institutions have evolved in a manner that facilitates the ideological extremes having greater influence and raw governing power than has previously been the case in our country and disproportionate to the number of their adherents.
As my regular readers know, I believe the two-party system we have today is the prime example of an institution gone awry. I fear that at this point in our history, simply being better moderates is not enough. Moderates must also organize to be the force that rebalances our institutions back toward the moderation Hobby describes.
Some may find Hobby’s book, and indeed this post on it, to be too esoteric for the real world of rough and tumble politics. But I think an intellectual framework for moderation as Hobby begins to construct in his book, is necessary to both defend moderation and as a tool for better policy outcomes and a more civil political life for our country.