The moderates vs. the extremes

There's a fascinating profile of Senator Ben Westlund (R-Bend) in the Oregonian today.

There are a dozen interesting topics in the story, but here's the one we'll talk about today: In the piece, Westlund laments the increasing polarization of the Oregon Legislature...

The widening partisan split and the growing reliance on special interest campaign cash has increasingly forced legislators to stick close to their party caucuses.

Westlund is now the biggest exception to the rule. He's often been the sole Republican voting for Democratic bills, ranging from the drug-purchasing plan to collective bargaining rights....

"Common sense would tell you that living in the middle -- being a moderate -- would be the most secure political ground," he says. "Regrettably that's not true anymore. It's the extremes that have the most political protection."

First question: Is that true? Have the moderates become disempowered in both parties?

Second question: Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Will this finally turn around the long-standing voter complaint that "there's no difference between the parties" or will the increasing partisanship make governing harder?


  • (Show?)

    I admit my bias, but I do believe that moderate Republican office holders are mostly extinct. Several disappeared in the last Oregon election. There are more Democrats in the middle, but they also have a tough row to hoe. Just like at the national level, Gerrymandered districts carve the state into Red and Blue districts. Few have much competition. Primary elections tend to go to the hardcore in each party, but the Republicans these days seem determined to destroy anyone who actually tries to compromise.

    Yes this is a bad thing. Most of the progressive legislation that made Oregon successful in the past was accomplished on a bipartisan basis.

    This is why there is a push for non-partisan elections. It pushes people into the center.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Moderates in the Republican Party are certainly out of favor and disempowered. The party often sponsors primary challengers against moderate officholders. The same does not happen in the Democratic Party. Sometimes I wish it would. We have had some wishy-washy D's elected from the so-called Peoples' Republic.

    Of course, that is why the Pacific Greens have so many members in Oregon.

  • Blair (unverified)

    Ironic to see this on BlueOregon, where posts often condemn our own moderates (e.g., Wyden, Hooley, Schrader) for being too middle-of-the-road.

    As BlueOregon proves, the loudest, most engaged people are those on the right and the left -- "the base". The Center is often disengaged, but then gets frustrated by the partisan bickering that results from our elected officials being pulled right or left by their base.

    So I'm here to say, hurray for our moderates! I may not always agree with them, but I respect them for towing a difficult path by resisting the all-too-easy road of bomb-throwing and base-placating on the right AND the left.

  • Blair (unverified)

    By the way, Tom Civiletti's post proves my point.

    Re-read his post and try to follow its logic. He says:

    (1) Too bad there aren't more moderate Republicans in power.

    (2) There aren't enough moderate R's because Republicans challenge their moderates in the primary.

    (3) Democrats should also be challenging moderates in our primaries.

    Uhh... I guess Tom only likes moderates when they come from the other side of the aisle. But he seems to like the Republican tactic of weeding-out the moderates by challenging them in the primary.

    Sounds pretty incoherent to me.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    I had the privilege of serving with Ben Westlund in the legislature. As his public persona would suggest, he is a thoughtful, compassionate and insightful man. He is an Oregonian first and a Republican second. Having come of age in the Tom McCall/Mark Hatfield era, I deeply miss that quality in the Oregon Republican party.

    In the Democratic Party, moderates are whispered about derisively. In the modern Republican Party, moderates are devoured alive as so called "traitors". Former Representative Vic Backlund R-Kaiser is the most recent, unfortunate example.

    I hope the voters in Ben's Senate district can see through the bullying tactics of the religious right. He is a man I and the majority of Oregonians would be proud to have leading us in whatever capacity he is elected to.

  • (Show?)

    We're shooting craps with loaded dice here. This is a common (and false) dichotomy, nearly ubiquitous among liberals, conservatives, and media types. Is it true we're polarized? Only an idiot would say no. But does that mean moderates are equal and equally disempowered in both parties? Say it with me now: No!

    As a guy who works with stats, a handy numerical example arises in my mind. Let's say that absolute liberalism is -5 on a scale, absolute moderatism is 0 and absolute conservatism is 5. In times where neither party has the advantage, each party's moderate wing will approach zero. But in times of imbalance, say 1945 or 2005, the entire frame is skewed one direction or the other.

    At midcentury, the country was blossoming into its most progressive phase. We made huge progress on both social and economic justice fronts. As the Democratic party made these gains, it brought the country along with it. The midpoint of views skewed left--ideas like getting rid of the estate tax wouldn't even get a public hearing, much less any support. If you took the average of all the views in currency in 1945, you'd find that the midpoint was at -2 (for example), not zero.

    Fast-forward. Ideas that were in regular currency at mid-century are completely off the table in political discussions--take universal health care, for example. Meanwhile, a wholesale shift has taken place so that now we are dismantling the midcentury liberal programs and putting into place conservative ones that look like Gilded-Age polices. Today's midpoint is skewed far right--say 2 or 3 on the conservative side.

    That's why liberal liked GOP "moderates" in an early age. Guys like Mark Hatfield may have been in the middle, but it was a left-skewed middle. Today, a person with his politics would be a somewhat liberal Dem. Similarly, today's GOP loves guys like Joe Lieberman, who at midcentury would have looked pretty regressive.

    If today's liberals are "polarized," it means only that we haven't completely gone over to the GOP line. We have no power and no ability to set the agenda, and it's always mighty irritating to me when the media (in particular) blames us for not being more "moderate." Having lost most of our power and most of the battles on policy, we should rush to make further concessions in the name of "moderatism?" Come on.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    We may disagree on politics but my position is quite consistent and easily understood.

    The ideal state is governed by those who understand and respect truth and care about people - progressives would be the closest major political group to this.

    The nightmare state is controlled by uninformed, delusional, selfish, tribal fascists - conservative Republicans are the most widespread group approaching this.

    I prefer the ideal state to the nightmare one.

    The closer to the ideal and the farther from the nightmare the better.

    So, clearly, I would prefer moderate R's to the conservative version, but would prefer any D to them and progressive D's to moderate ones.

    This is as coherent as it is consistent.

    Any Questions?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    By the way, I support "our own moderates (e.g., Wyden, Hooley, Schrader)", but sometimes disagree with them. None of them represents a strongly progressive district like those in Portland or Eugene, where I would like to see Dems elected with more progressive views.

  • Blair (unverified)

    First, Jeff, I'm not saying the Democratic Party should be more moderate. Not at all. I love our party's lefty office-holders. I'm simply pointing out the hypocracy of those who condemn the Republican Party for cannibalizing its moderates, but then would do the same to our moderates.

    All I'm saying is: A healthy party is firmly anchored on either the right or the left (with folks like Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms), and ALSO has moderate elements who tip the balance of power (folks like Darlene Hooley and Christopher Shays). We should value BOTH types -- neither party should be eating its moderates alive like Oregon's Republicans do (and like many BlueOregon Democrats would like to do).

    Tom: Your first post WAS incoherent. Your second post was not. You either think challenging moderates in the primary with more partisan types is a good idea, or you don't. You can't say that it's bad when the Republicans do it, but I wish the Democrats did it more often.

  • LT (unverified)

    About this quote: " The same does not happen in the Democratic Party. Sometimes I wish it would. We have had some wishy-washy D's elected from the so-called Peoples' Republic."

    Define "wishy-washy". Not shouting your politics from the rooftops?

    Anyone who doesn't like their own Dem. state rep. is free to find someone to challenge them in the primary or do it themselves. Anyone who doesn't like another state rep. should consider exactly why they dislike that person. Something specific like a vote? Didn't give you a straight answer? Wouldn't support your idea?

    Perhaps the voters of that district (the everyday folks who have lives too active to spend much time blogging) like the incumbent, whether you like that person or not.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    I think you read something different than I wrote. Noting that R's run primary candidates against their moderates does not mean that they have no right to do so, either legally or morally. It's their party. I lament it because I would rather see moderate R's [some of whom are quite decent folk in spite of their affiliation] in office.

    Democrats almost never challenge incumbents. Mostly, I think that is wise. There are exceptions though. If a Democrat is likely to win the general anyway, why not challenge an incumbent who is out of step with his constituents or sold out to special interests?

    I find no magic in the term "moderate." If we are talking about reasonableness, the ability to work with those with whom we disagree, civility and responsibility, then moderation is a good thing. If we are talking about reluctance to challenge the status quo and willingness to compromise core principle for selfish gain or to avoid conflict, then moderation sounds quite dismal to me.

  • (Show?)

    While Blair finds it ironic that moderates sometimes are criticized on BlueOregon, as a recent arrival I'd have to say that the overwhelming number of recent posts on the subject have trashed "extremes". In fact that way of framing the question prejudges it (see debate on poll questions :->).

    Jeff Alford's post about history is important. Part of the reason for the current "polarization" is that the further wing of the Rs is trying to change the current shift from a pendulum swing into an entrenched recentering of the whole spectrum so that a whole raft of quite moderate and sensible liberal ideas get defined as extreme and off the table.

    The other thing one might say about it is that in U.S. politics on the whole, the effective electoral political spectrum has always been narrower than in most other countries, due to the structure of elections. So we have an interesting phenomenon of partisan polarization within what in global terms really a rather small range of differences, in which labeling opponents as extremist routinely for partisan advantage has taken the place of actually debating issues in public.

    There is let's say a certain lack of clarity in the discussions here I've seen among differences in definitions of "moderate." Is a moderate someone who is willing to work across party lines (one common definition)? Does that really align as closely with ideological position as seems to be the common assumption? Or is it a matter of character, personality and temperament? Ted Kennedy actually works pretty effectively with Rs on any number of issues. Randy L. on this list has had to contend with labels about his temperament. And funny about that, it's good thing he's a fighter, except when it's not.

    Is a moderate merely someone who someone labels as close to the middle of the political spectrum? Who does the labeling? Is a "moderate" who is willing to work across party lines not willing to work with "extremes", so-called, in his or her own party really moderate? I made the mistake of voting for the ideologically extremist Joe Lieberman at a time I lived in Connecticut for a while, over the genuinely moderate Lowell Weicker. Lieberman gets called a moderate because he's at the rightwing end of the current Dem spectrum but in fact he is an ideologue.

    When does ideological flexibility slide over into political opportunism? When does political willingness to attack so-called extremists in your own party for electoral advantage turn into a different form of eating your young from that practiced a lot by Republican ultras in Oregon today?

    There is a group we don't seem to talk about -- people who are solidly in the middle of either party. Looking at Oregon Dems in statewide offices, isn't that what we see, mostly? Ted K., Bill Bradbury, Randall Edwards, Ron Wyden -- I don't see anyone who its hard to distinguish from someone in the middle of the R range, but there are no really strong ideological liberals either, are there?

    Might a moderate be someone who is in the middle of their party, rather than the fringe of their party closest to the other party? Moderates in that sense seem to be quite empowered among Oregon Dems, but not among the Repubs.


    The question is also badly framed in that it fails to distinguish between elected officials and voters.

    I would suggest that very few voters are empowered in our present system, regardless of their views. Self-defined moderates sometimes decide they want to see this as a matter of disfranchisement of their particular political view, however they define it, but conservatives continue to moan about liberal domination while liberals do the opposite and people to the left of liberal see the next thing to a one party state and have the basic problem that their ideas are so marginalized, despite often being common sense in moderate countries like Canada, that to call them by their proper names makes them unintelligible to U.S. voters.

    (Disclosure: I'm not a liberal, I'm a social democrat. The U.S. offers me no party that really expresses that view. A lot of Dems would prefer that folks like me would go away and not make life more complicated in our party, except to dutifully turn up and vote for people I don't really agree with who make political hay out of attacking me as "extremist" the rest of the time.

    It would be hard to get the term "social democrat" printed in any U.S. newspaper except as the name of a German political party. Worse yet, I'm an intellectual. Aaggghhh, runaway, runaway. I like ideas, and not just wonky ones, though they're fine. I like poll data -- I also believe politics should be about persuading people to support things they don't currently support. I try to be moderate in temperament, honest in ideas in the sense of trying to understand what those with other ideas mean from their own point of view and respectful in debate, and open-minded about what to do on a practical level.

    Despite having lefty ideas not widely shared, and being an intellectual, and even drinking latté sometimes (as if conservatives don't!), I'm not an elitist. Call me one 'til the cows come home, it just ain't true. The real elitists are the ones who a) want to maintain the existence of great inequalities, and b) pursue policies that support such inequalities and the interests of the owners of great wealth.

    <h2>Yet while I try to be open-minded and respectful, I have to admit if I am honest with myself that there are bedrock things I believe about equality, the public good, the common good, the legitimacy of using both government and non-governmental, non-profit forms of association to pursue to pursue government and common goods, for example, about which I am not really likely to change my basic views. Ideologically a lot of my views would be susceptible to being labeled extremist in the current climate and effective poltical spectrum. Some of them really are radical, which might or might not be the same thing. Some are not. Either way, the labeling seems to me to be an indictment of the times and the climate, and not really of the ideas.)</h2>
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