Among many good-government types, there’s a reliable refrain: We need more moderates in Washington!
Such sentiments are no doubt well intended. It’s easy to see where they come from. The division and contentiousness in Washington is dysfunctional by any standard.
Nonetheless, the yearning for more moderates is misplaced.
We don’t dream of being moderately in love. We don’t search for a surgeon who’s moderately effective. Why should we look to moderates as a panacea for our political dysfunction?
The etymology of the term “moderation” is revealing. It’s derived from avoiding excesses, from exerting control. It arises from modesty.
When people seek moderation in politics, they are referring to civility and a willingness to compromise with partisan opponents.
These can be valuable traits—or not. Context is determinative.
When Hitler was menacing the world order, the call did not go forth for a moderate response. Winston Churchill had many virtues. Moderation was not conspicuous among them. Churchill was defiantly immoderate in his approach to leadership.
Cultivating and encouraging moderation in the interactions of public officials would be welcome. Nonetheless, they do not constitute a governing philosophy. Those who identify as moderates may find themselves entirely ineffective in leadership, depending on the service that’s required.
Centrism and Its Discontents
Some who comprehend the chimera of moderates urge an alternative: more centrists.
The notion of a Congress and president taking a centrist approach has undeniable appeal. It’s a natural response to the binary division of politics and government under the legacy-party duopoly.
The Democrats and Republicans routinely stake out “extreme” positions. They are attempting to pull the ultimate resolution further toward their preferred outcomes. This is reinforced by the increasing ranks of partisan politicians clustered on the farther reaches of the ideologically homogenous legacy parties.
Some suggest that centrists hold the key to breaking the chronic deadlock of the national government. Centrists would seek compromise in the space between distant points of left and right.
This means that centrism concedes the bounds of discussion. The debate is defined by what’s on offer from the Democrats and Republicans. For their part, the partisans are merely forwarding what’s provided them by concerned ideologues and special interests.
You may welcome this outcome if you’re persuaded that the status quo is acceptable. Centrists could enable the two parties to join hands on various issues.
For many of us, this is far from acceptable. On issue after issue—national security, fiscal integrity, environmental protection, education, and more—the alternatives offered by the legacy parties are insufficient. If the options themselves are flawed, compromising between them is unlikely to be wise.
If we can’t look to moderates and centrists of disrupt politics, where can we turn?
If we look to independents for change, we must confront a threshold question: Independent of what?
The answer is: Independent of the Special Interest State that has commandeered our national government.
The Special Interest State is a system. As it works its will, our constitutional system is buckling under its domination.
The legacy parties are legally protected and taxpayer subsidized. Yet they’re nothing more than legal vessels through which special interests operate. As citizens flee the parties that have abandoned us, the remaining partisans are ever more ideologically “pure.” This enables sponsoring interest groups to hold even greater sway. Members of Congress who defy their dictation risk extinction in low-turnout primaries. Presidents face corresponding pressures.
Moderates and centrists are being squeezed out by the operation of the Special Interest State. The few that make it through are unable to challenge the system. At most they can be facilitators of the status quo.
Independents hold the potential of disrupting politics. Outside of the legacy parties’ grip, they can bring to bear a larger perspective. Political institutions can be restored to their representative function. Information and ideas can come from the outside-in, from the bottom-up.
Consider an old standard of politicians of all stripes: declaiming against the explosive growth of the national debt. For the torrent of words, action is fitful at best. A generation ago, Ross Perot’s third-party challenge nudged Washington toward bipartisan action. More recently, the legacy parties have returned to their default position. They collude to run up debt as a means to achieve compromise among contending interests.
Reflect on the incapacity of our politicians to ensure ballot integrity and ballot access. These relate to fundamental constitutional guarantees of consent of the governed. There’s no rational reason that both aims can’t be met. Yet the legacy parties and their special interest patrons define these issues as in conflict, precluding action.
Even citizens broadly satisfied with the policy options provided in today’s politics may be dissatisfied with the linkages of choices imposed by the partisan duopoly. For example, an individual concerned with limiting government spending might incline toward the Republicans. If she wants action on climate change, she’s likely to incline toward the Democrats. Though she may hold each view with equal intensity, the Special Interest State forces her to select one or the other.
It’s reminiscent of the evolution of popular music. In the 1960s if a consumer wanted to purchase one song, she often had to purchase an entire album. In the iPod world, we can buy individual songs that suit us. We can create our own collection, reflecting our tastes and values.
When can we have the benefit of the such disintermediation in politics?
What Is To Be Done?
Because the Special Interest State is a system, one can be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task of reconstruction. Where does one begin?
An essential first step is to diagnose the problem and identify remedies. Independents hold the prospect of progress.
The voting public is more than open to independents. A plurality of us are independents, rejecting the tired nostrums of the legacy parties. The problem is that we’re not afforded opportunities to express our viewpoints at the ballot box.
The closed system of the Special Interest State is thus far impervious to our alienation. How else can one explain the Democrats and Republicans simultaneously nominating the most poorly regarded presidential candidates in American history?
The Special Interest State can only persist on a foundation of laws and subsidies that insulate it from competition, transparency and accountability. Independents can disrupt the system by any number of steps increasing competition, ensuring actionable transparency, on a foundation of decisive accountability.
There are signs of progress amid the chaos of the 2016 elections. Bernie Sanders is an independent who challenged the status quo and earned unforeseen support in the Democratic primaries. Donald Trump is a metaphorical independent who swept the Republican primaries. Libertarian Gary Johnson is explicitly seeking independent voters for his increasingly credible if ultimately unlikely quest.
Thus independents are moving on two fronts. One is to continue to challenge the system from the outside. Now, as Sanders and Trump have demonstrated, we can also seek change from the inside.
If we, the people, demand more independents, the politicians will follow. The first, necessary step, is to recognize the remedy—and not be derailed into wrong directions.
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