The death of "moderate"

Russell Sadler

An announcement to readers. I am banning the word “moderate” from this column as a noun or an adjective.

Journalism is, by necessity, an exercise in writing shorthand. We don’t have the space to write out complex descriptions, so journalists label lots of things, especially in politics. But as time passes, the labels often lose their original meaning.

The noun “liberal” no longer means what it did 20-30 years ago, largely because of a concerted campaign by conservatives to change the meaning of “liberal” in the public mind. And today’s “conservatives” are certainly not the conservatives of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon or even Barry Goldwater.

Arguably, the most abused word in the political lexicon is “moderate” used as an adjective or noun. Moderate is supposed to describe a politician who is in the center between the supposed right and left poles of our political spectrum. In practice, the word “moderate” is now being used to describe politicians just slightly to the center of the most extreme people on the political poles. “Moderate” is also being used to mischaracterize the few genuine political mavericks still around.

I have been uncomfortable with the term “moderate” for more than a year. I avoid “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” because it perpetuates the carefully cultivated myth that the right and left are the only positions in American politics and anyone in between must be a “moderate” or “centrist.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, (D-Conn.) is an ornery maverick, not a centrist.

This issue was brought to a head by the following communication from a former editor and respected friend...

I'm sorry to see you join in the rightward shift of the word "moderate." If moderation is where Ron Saxton is, god help us. This is along the lines of the Oregonian's puff piece on Gordon Smith the other day, which falls all over itself painting him as a moderate, while quoting him uncritically as saying that ‘the Democratic Party are socialists.’

Hint: in current political discourse, moderate means ‘very conservative,’ conservative means ‘extreme reactionary,’ right-wing means holding political views that should not be possible for a bipedal creature possessing frontal lobes.

I’ll leave it to you to agree or disagree with my friend’s interpretation of the political lexicon, but he is indisputably correct that neither Ron Saxton nor Sen. Gordon Smith are “moderates.”

Saxton is the most business-oriented candidate that Republican voters have offered Oregonians since Vic Atiyeh, a popular and reasonably effective governor during the recession of the 1980s. But Saxton’s continuing attacks on public employee unions places him far to the right of Atiyeh, if you believe that the quality of working class life remains a left-right issue.

Smith has cultivated the image of “another Mark Hatfield.” I covered nearly all of Sen. Hatfield’s distinguished political career and Smith is no Mark Hatfield.

Hatfield was neither liberal, nor conservative. Hatfield was not a “centrist.” Hatfield was a genuine maverick, much like the late Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse. By maverick, I mean a politician who is not an ideologue and who votes unpredictably.

Hatfield was probably the most pious elected politician in Oregon’s post- World War II history -- he was a devout Baptist -- but he was never a reliable vote for the Christian Republicans and would not accept the political dogma of the Southern Baptist Convention which was becoming the unofficial established religion of government.

Hatfield married a Greek Orthodox woman and the couple was shunned by both families for years for marrying outside their religions. It was a soul-searing lesson in religious intolerance and Hatfield never forgot it.

Smith has been a reliable vote for Christian Republicans and Christian nationalists whose theocratic dogma was relegated to the “lunatic fringe” in the not-so-distant past.

The political “center” doesn’t move with the extremes of any political party. Polls show that more than half those polled believe “the country is moving in the wrong direction.” The implication is that the country is moving too far to the left or the right and needs to move back toward the center.

I suspect many of those poll respondents do not accept that interpretation. I suspect they believe the country is marching in a totally wrong direction, back to the 19th century instead of toward the 21st. These citizens -- they are probably not “voters” any more -- are frustrated and angry at the way politicians are obsessed by the partisan confrontations in Washington, D.C. at the expense of the real problems in their everyday lives at home.

If I am right, then the word “moderate” no longer has any useful political meaning to such people, many of whom I number among readers of this column. From now on, I will try to find some shorthand to describe politicians who understand that our problems are not of the left or the right, but rather that a wholly new direction is required. Any suggestions from readers would be welcome.

  • DeanOR (unverified)

    In international affairs, we often seem to be told that there is some moderate middle of the road position between killing lots of children with lots of bombs (or one nuke) and killing just a few children with just a few bombs. I've never been able to figure out what that moderate position is.

  • (Show?)

    Ayep. It's an almost meaningless term. The operatives on the Left and the Right tend to use the term to describe their own True Believers in the attempt to make them more palatable to the public.

    Incumbent politicians that call themselves moderate usually accompany such claims with examples of votes taken or bills pushed with the intention of raising their appeal with self identified moderate voters. See below.

    The voters overwhelmingly describe themselves as moderate which usually seems to be shorthand for "I pay a hell of a lot more attention to sports than I do to the politicians who's salaries I pay and the issues that they espouse or oppose."

    People who respond to polls that the country is moving in the wrong direction have at least 360 degrees and countless minutes of subtlety in mind and thus can't really help with identifying moderation as a meaningful term.

  • (Show?)

    Yup. The word "moderate" means different things to different people.

    For example, I consider myself fairly "moderate" ideologically. Of course, American political discourse has shifted so far to the right in the last 15 years that my views now seem "liberal". I'm a hard-core partisan, but not an extreme ideologue.

    Not unlike Howard Dean, whose balanced-budget, anti-gun-control, anti-gay-marriage views somehow got labeled "extreme left" by folks. Totally weird.

    Labels are supposed to be convenient shorthand, but they've become a way to inconvenience the truth.

  • james Caird (unverified)

    Today's debate on Meet the Press between Pennsylvania senate candidates Casey and Santorum was a battle to see which candidate could get the most distance between himself and his party. The word of the day was Independent. Santorum assured us how independent he was (ignoring his 98% record of voting with Bush). Casey assured us he was independent of the national Democrats.

    These politicians understand that Americans are finally figuring out that the two-party system isn't working. Everyone wants to claim to be an independent, but they understand how hard it is to get elected as an actual independent seperate from the two major parties.

    American voters want more "independence" and less partisanship, but they're not willing to actually support third party or independent candidates. Hence, we get partisan republican and democratic candidates scrambling to be labelled "independent."

    Is "independent" the new shorthand for "moderate?"

  • (Show?)

    For most of my life I called myself a moderate or centrist. I started out as a moderate Republican. When that became a meaningless I became a moderate Democrat. Now I find out that I am a Liberal Democrat. During this journey I don't think that my fundamental positions have changed at all, just the labels and the fact that the Republican party has moved so far to the right that they have re-defined the center and the media has gone along with it.

    Of course a large part of the debate is always right-left-center on what set of issues: taxation, civil rights, war, gay rights, abortion, health care, commercial regulation? Lieberman is probably center left on some of those issues, but clearly not on the war nor even commercial regulation where he is truly right wing. So because he splits and is left on some issues and right on others does that make him a centrist. In my opinion no. He is just schizophrenic.

    Bush on the other hand is clearly not a conservative by any definition pre-2000. He is a military adventurist and a spend thrift. He wants to regulate our sex lives. He is anti-libertarian and a real radical who wants to re-make the world in his own image. The very opposite of a conservative. So with him on one side and a third of the country still supporting him, where on earth is the center?

  • LT (unverified)

    I have long believed that labels short circuit thought. There really is no label for someone who campaigned for Tom McCall, admired Clay Myers, and knows Saxton lacks the good manners, core beliefs he is willing to talk about publicly, and willingness to engage in dialogue with the general public that typified Vic Atiyeh---who now supports many Democrats but understands the appeal of Ben Westlund.

    I appreciate this from Russell: From now on, I will try to find some shorthand to describe politicians who understand that our problems are not of the left or the right, but rather that a wholly new direction is required. Any suggestions from readers would be welcome.

    Recently, I attended a dinner which included members of both parties, an age range of over 50 years from the oldest to the youngest, current and former legislators, and people who don't follow politics but were personal friends of the guest of honor. Much mention was made of people who had run for office to accomplish specific things, of members of both parties who were friends by virtue of all having been House freshmen together, that the goal of legislative service should be working with others to solve problems, that education and health care should not be partisan issues. So, was that room filled with people who aren't ideologues? Was everyone who spoke a "maverick"? Which campaign practices attract/ repel the sort of folks who were in that banquet room? Isn't it time to debate that openly?

    For years I have confounded people who think ideologues (or "political professionals") rule. All I said was "I vote problem solvers over ideologues, for civility and common sense over attack politics, for people I have met and been impressed with over those I have never met, and I stand up for my friends". What a radical concept--looking seriously at the actual candidates (why I oppose IRV or any other idea where you don't really know where your vote will end up, or you vote for a party which picks the office holder off a slate of candidates).

    Some friends and I used to joke that we were "the people for whom there is no label".

    Maverick used wisely is a good term, as long as it isn't denigrated like other labels have been.

  • Josh (unverified)

    This time Russell is absolutely right. Casting Saxton or Smith as "moderates" is misleading. By the same token we have had some really interesting mavericks/moderates in Oregon politics, Tom McCall and Wayne Morse. To borrow from the late Lloyd Bensten who told Dan "Potato-head" Quayle off, I knew Wayne Morse and Ben Westlund is no Wayne Morse. The really interesting Oregon politicians are people like McCall, Morse, and now DeFazio, someone unafraid to take those positins he really beleives in without bending to whatever orthodoxy is currently dominating.

  • LT (unverified)

    I had friends who worked very closely with Wayne Morse (incl. some who worked on that last campaign). I never said Westlund was Wayne Morse. I merely said he was a refreshing bit of maverick at a time when too many legislators listen to their caucus leadership first, second and third, and constituents only as an afterthought.

    One thing Wayne Morse did (I heard from a friend who was an Oregon college student back when Morse was still in the US Senate) was to actually argue an issue with a college student who debated him and said "Here's a list of things you should read on the subject, then come back and we can debate it again". The college student read the material and decided Morse was right. But that is intellectually engaging an ordinary citizen rather than just preaching ideology or talking points as if the listener is just a thing to be acted upon rather than a thinking adult who may have questions.

    We rarely see that attitude these days--everything is poll tested, or ideology, or talking points. One thing I have seen Ben Westlund do is discuss the details of an idea, why it is a good idea, and why he supports/ opposes it. DeFazio does the same thing. So, sometimes, do Earl B. and Ron Wyden. We could use more of that.

    Westlund is not the "tiger of the state senate" the way Wayne Morse had a book written about him titled TIGER OF THE SENATE. But, he sure has more details on his website about proposals than Ted did the last time I looked.

    If Ted's site has gone beyond press clippings on his "issues" section, someone let me know that there are proposals as specific as Westlund's site and I will take another look.

  • THartill (unverified)


    As luck may have it a friend and I were talking about our political views a few days ago. The conclusion was that I am a left-libertarian and you are a left-authoritarian. This explains why you agree with someone like Lars Larsen just as much as Democrats and I agree with folks like the Cato Institute just as much as the Democrats and most likely will vote for M48.

    Really there is no such thing as a "moderate" because labels are given to folks on their positions and there is no moderate position on any single issue, everything is black or white, right or left. I am a pinko peace-nik commie on some issues and a Republican "shill" on others, but in no way do I consider myself a moderate.

  • eric (unverified)

    The reason Moderate is no more is that there are just too many high strung people who belive that you can't have a gray area on anything. Too many people work in absolutes when we need to work in abstracts. I have some views that are 'ligeral' and some that are 'conservative', but I feel that many people can't be that way because they can't see the forest for the trees. In fact - we are not liberal or conservative, we are Americans. Why we need to lable ourselves into two high stressed, high strung camps is way beyond my simple comprehension.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    Mark Hatfield.

    I don't get it. Either the comments about Hatfield in the original posting, or the way that people in Oregon seem to fawn all over the man. (Full disclosure: I moved to Oregon in 1992.)

    The Official Story about Hatfield seems to be the one spun in the original posting, to wit: the man was a great maverick whom nobody could jerk around yadda yadda yadda.

    Sorry, I don't swallow The Official Story. As far as I can tell, Hatfield was an extremely canny pork-barreler, and the real reason Oregonians fall all over themselves singing his praises is precisely because he was so damn good at bringing home the bacon. As I do not equate pork-barreling and earmarking with good public policy, Hatfield's "success" in this arena impresses me not. Hatfield was also exceptionally egotistical. Geez Louise, there were public buildings named after the man all over the state while he was still in office.

    Yeah, he opposed the Vietnam War. So, eventually, did a lot of politicians.

    Hatfield and his comrade Bob Packwood (whom many Oregonians, and The Oregonian, would also be praising if he had managed to keep his pants zipped) were eager supporters of Reagan, the first Great Prevaricator. How does that factor into Hatfield's "distinguished" career, as the original posting put it? Do I detect a bit of cognitive dissonance?

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Packwood was a far more accomplished legislator than Hatfield: he would still be the Senate Finance Committee Chair if it weren't for his trouncing of Les Aucoin (which prompted his NOW outing as a red blooded American Male of Clintonian proportions)...Anybody think Oregon would have been better served by Packwood than Gordo?

    From Wikipedia.Org: Packwood was elected to the Senate in 1968, defeating Wayne Morse. He was reelected in 1974, 1980, 1986 and 1992. Packwood chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1985 to 1987. He was chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, 1979-1980. His voting record was very moderate, which matched Oregon's tradition for electing mavericks to the Senate. Packwood was staunchly pro-choice and was often targeted by religious groups for his stance. He supported gun control and civil rights for minorities. He was one of only two Republicans to vote against the nomination of Clarence Thomas into the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1993 he was the only Senator to vote against mandatory life imprisonment for persons convicted of a third violent felony.

  • Wesley Charles (unverified)

    The reason moderate has become a meaningless term is because it is the antidote to its now equally meaningless counterpart: extremist.

    Regardless of your party or position, the basic game plan today is to paint your candidate-measure-position as moderate and those who oppose you as "extremists." Pick an issue, and play either side.

    Parental Notification? Proponents see this as a sensible, common sense proposition, while opponents decry it as an extreme affront to womens' reproductive rights.

    SB1000? Proponents argued that this was a much-needed, moderate proposal to give same-sex couples virtually equal rights as heteros. Opponents decried the bill as an extreme piece of legislation from that "extremist" group Basic Rights Oregon.

    And so it goes for another election cycle.

    So, while we are busy redacting "moderate" from our political vocabulary, let's add "extreme" and its various derivitives (far-Left, far-Right) while we're at it.

    What an extremely moderate idea . . .

    • Wes
  • (Show?)

    LT responded to Josh... I never said Westlund was Wayne Morse.

    Sheesh, LT... and Josh didn't say that you did. Why does every post around here become about what you think? Please let conversations develop on their own.

  • LT (unverified)

    Wes, interesting that you said this: Parental Notification? Proponents see this as a sensible, common sense proposition, while opponents decry it as an extreme affront to womens' reproductive rights.

    As it happens, no one wants to debate me on that issue. When asked about it (something that as it happens I know something about due to friends I have had, among other things) I say something like, "It isn't about the general idea, it is about the wording of the actual measure. I am a great supporter of what Wisconsin did on this issue in 1985. But the wording of this measure is roughly the same as a Senate bill in 1995 (if I can remember the bill # I say it), and a very large coalition defeated that bill in the House because of how it was worded. The tort reform people didn't like it because it created a cause of action that does not now exist, and one of the most powerful House speeches against it made just that point."

    Most people look startled and just walk away upon hearing that, sometimes with a "that does not compute" look on their faces.

    When Russell did radio commentary, he had a very popular feature the last few months before an election. One measure per commentary, explanation and a few sentences each pro and con, and then "If you believe ----------, vote yes, if you believe ___ vote no". Was wonderful--cut through all the hype.

    Maybe he can think of a term for the people who admired that feature, as well as the people who reserve the right to read the text of ballot measures, or rely on suggestions of friends. And a term for people who tell their friends "if that candidate wants my vote, he/ she will answer the following questions". Of course, voters like that drive consultants and ideologues nuts.

  • Harry (unverified)

    lin qiao: "As far as I can tell, Hatfield was an extremely canny pork-barreler"

    Quite correct. And Chair of the Appropriations Committee. He and Packwood were real power brokers who brought home the bacon. They paved Oregon with lots of gold...buildings, light rail, etc. The only comparable Senator today is Byrd. Byrd's state is getting the pork like Oregon got back in the 80's....except Packwood and Hatfield were Chairmen while the President was Republican, while Byrd is in the minority in the Senate and in the Executive branch. Very impressive, that Byrd!

    I think that is why some people refer to Hatfield as Saint Mark (and that he wore his religion on his sleeve). Both of them were held in very high regard (local porkers generally are) until Hatfield's wife was caught taking legal 'bribes' from Arabs and Packy's zipper episode.

    Pork is the opposite of NIMBY stuff. Everybody hates pork everywhere else (bridge to nowhere...), except when you get some in your own back yard, then it is great!

  • (Show?)

    Keep in mind Oregon still sends in less than what it gets back. And speaking of bridges to nowhere, Ted Stevens is another pork king. Cornyn of Texas too, if I recall.

    On moderation--it's ironic that someone pointed out Russell's radio strategy of parsing election questions into mutually exclusive belief systems, for which the side you picked indicated the proper way to vote. That makes plain there are usually two opposite sides to any issue.

    But there are clearly gray areas in between. What restrictions, if any, on abortion are acceptable? You say "partial birth," I say "24 hour waiting period." How much licensing and regulation of guns is enough without intruding on that particular constitutional privacy? You say no AK-47s; I say no .38s. Between the poles, someone who is not hewing to a particular ideology or party lines will find themselves between those poles, falling just to one side or another.

    That's being a moderate. It's not so much the position on the political spectrum between liberal and conservative; it's the fuzz between hardline positions one way or the other. When you are partisan, there's much less fuzz for you--less moderacy in your thinking.

    How ironic that to many "liberals," the few "moderate" Republicans are desperate saviors that prevent a neocon holocaust--but their supposedly like minded "moderate" Democratic counterparts are cowardly scoundrels and enablers...a Republican's favorite "good Democrat" is my Liebermanesque nightmare.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I really agree with the thrust of Russell's comments. My own experience is that as I talk as a Democrat from a rural area, people try to label me. Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Actually, none of the above. I feel that I am at right angles to these labels in a different dimension.

    When you stand up for what people need and what our highest aspirations are as a society, that makes you a .....

    When you believe that government has a good purpose and is needed for social good, and that an ordered society is a good thing, that makes you a .....

    When you believe that government should be supported in equal shares by those that benefit the most from it and as they are able those who need its help the most, that makes you a .....

    When you believe that community is as, if not more, important than individuality, that makes you a .....

    When you believe that respect of individuals and cultures is a societal expectation, that makes you a .....

    When you believe that money is not to be wasted, but should be put to work, that makes you a .....

    I have found that I am called everything under the sun for having these beliefs, everything from communist to stupid.

    We could either use a new vocabulary, or like LT suggests, a complete new way of thinking about this.

  • LT (unverified)

    Thanks, Steve. If someone can come up with shorthand for any or all of your "that makes you a........." that could answer Russell's request for suggestions from readers.

    When you believe that money is not to be wasted, but should be put to work, that makes you a ..... As the daughter of an accountant who worked for an auditing firm, as the granddaughter of a prosecutor, I've found lots of people who want the other guy's every action audited and investigated, but not theirs.

    Just think what would happen if the Democrats get control of either chamber in DC this November and have oversight hearings modeled on the Truman Commission in WWII. It is one thing to be "pro-accountability". It is another thing to audit contracting companies which got no-bid contracts. (Or school district administrators in Oregon, or whether privatized contracts deliver more value for less money or less value for more money, any other "sacred cow".)

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