Semantics: Moderate v. Centrist II

My earlier post (here) received a thoughtful response this week from Solomon Kleinsmith over at Rise of the Center, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to continue that conversation here. Readers may want to take a look at his comment on the earlier post, to which I’ll be replying.

(Also, if you’re interested in delving into the centrist blogosphere, Rise of the Center seems like a good place to start).


First issue: polling. I’ve studied polling and qualitative data techniques enough to be skeptical. As a basic rule, survey data is most useful for providing very specific answers to very narrow questions. These usually come in the form of ratios of responders who do or do not support a given set of propositions. But so much depends on the wording, framing, and format. On even one issue (say, gay marriage), polls can fluctuate dramatically based on all of these factors and simply what current events are receiving media attention at the moment. Add the fact that a position on one issue doesn’t necessarily correlate with a specific position on another issue, and I’m left suspicious that polling can reveal the political center for us in a meaningful way. Yes, it may show us the general central range, but it’s too contingent to provide the foundation of our policy positions.

Second issue: the political spectrum. I’ll take Kleinsmith’s point about “conservative” and “liberal” being relational systems of political thought. I’m not sure how one separately and objectively defines the left-right spectrum though, since it’s an abstract analogy. If it means something, the political “center” must be defined in relation to the other systems of political thought (or polling, as Kleinsmith suggests) rather than the abstract analogy.

Third issue: the fickleness of political opinion. I assume Kleinsmith meant to say that “political opinions very rarely take LESS than a generation to shift wildly.” That may be true of some set of foundational beliefs but as far as specific public policies, polling can indicate rather dramatic shifts as new ideas are proposed and contested. This is another reason why I don’t find polling a useful guide to governance in our politics. Simply seeking to do what the mean voter (average, not cruel) wants at any given moment would result in maddening policy oscillation.

Fourth issue: the semantics. Yes, I know that “moderate” is a modifier (“moderate liberal”, “moderate conservative”) that implies one is less stalwart in one’s political opinions. In this sense, being moderate means that one is closer to the centrist position than the fringes. If one desired to promote such moderation, defining the centrist politics to which the moderate liberals and moderate conservatives were gravitating would be a good step (one which Rise of the Center is working on). Following that, the next requirement would be institutions and networks that provided electoral support for the centrist politicians by connecting them with centrist voters and funding. In other words, ultimately, either a third party or a robust extra-party institution.

The point of my project, however, is a bit different. It is not to argue that U.S. politics should be centrist or to define the political center. Rather, I’m working to define something I call “moderate” politics. It involves a dedication to certain core values (mostly process-oriented) that would allow even stalwart conservatives and stalwart liberals to work productively in the political sphere. Unlike centrism, which Kleinsmith suggests does not have an ideology, the “moderate” politics I’m working to define is a system of political thought, albeit one that can be embraced simultaneously with conservatism or liberalism (or other ideologies for that matter).

7 Responses to Semantics: Moderate v. Centrist II
  1. Solomon Kleinsmith
    May 23, 2011 | 3:45 am

    First Issue: Polling is the best data we have. If you don’t use the best data you have, all you’re doing is guessing or projecting what you want to see.

    Second Issue: Polling averages – the center of the center is the top of the bell curve on whichever issue you happen to be talking about.

    Third Issue: Who said anything about using polling as a “useful guide to governance in our politics”? I’m a centrist because this is where I happen to fall on the issues, on average, not because I’ve decided to be a centrist, went out to find out what a good centrist is supposed to think, and then decided on that. That is the case with most centrists, in my experience, whereas liberals and conservatives are more effected by ideologies – systems of connected beliefs (this has been shown to be true in psychological studies even).

    Fourth Issue: Centrist isn’t a position that is set in stone, any more than left or right. For example… the left here is very different than the left in most of Europe, because the center there is more left, and the right in some countries would be considered centrist to moderate in ours, barring the far right parties. There is no centrISM, or ideology of the center, so the only definition that has any level of accuracy is just an area in the center, including some moderates from both sides and more true centrists.

    I’m not sure if this is what you are getting at, but there are in fact some things that fall completely outside of the purview of ideology… things like corruption, open government, open elections, etc… those aren’t ideological things, they’re just basic fairness things. The best term I’ve seen for those ( and this is a term that is grossly overused, and misused) is transpartisan. As much as it would be easy for me to say they are moderate stances, to get a dig on more extreme political types, there are plenty of fair minded folks all over the spectrum that don’t let their beliefs cloud their judgement so much that they want to game the system to their advantage. Calling these things moderate isn’t really fair… makes it seem like extremists can’t also be for them.

  2. Jason
    May 23, 2011 | 7:47 pm

    On polling: If polling isn’t supposed to serve as a guide to governance (by bring politics to the center, where it ought to be), then I’m not sure why we’re arguing about it. Who cares how accurate polling is in defining the political center if the center has no claim to superior policy or greater legitimacy?

    As for my focus here, perhaps what I’m getting at is what you call “transpartisan.” Rather than seeing these commitments as a matter of “just basic fairness,” I think they represent another ideology that can be held (or not held) in conjunction with more commonly recognized political ideologies (conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, etc.). My apologies if that’s not clear yet. This is still definitely a project in progress.

    Personally, I don’t find the word “extremist” useful as a political label, except perhaps for those who would advocate violence as a political tool. I guess in that regard you are right that extremists can’t hold these views I’m calling “moderate.” But my pool of candidates for extremism is very limited.

    • Solomon Kleinsmith
      May 25, 2011 | 9:37 pm

      Everyone thinks they have superior policy, otherwise they wouldn’t think it. I think my ideas (which are 75-80ish% within the range of centrist to moderate) are the most effective, but I don’t pretend that there is such thing as inherantly superior policy, or that something being centrist necessarily makes it better just because I agree with it.

      There is an argument to be made that is more legitimate, in a democratic country, though, since on just about every issue, the center is where the majority is. This is just talk though… what really matters is what IS happeneing on the ground.

      “Personally, I don’t find the word “extremist” useful as a political label, except perhaps for those who would advocate violence as a political tool.”

      I use the term literally, meaning an extremist is someone who’s views are extreme in comparison to the norm. Lots of other terms you could use that mean similar things.

      • Jason
        May 29, 2011 | 8:31 pm

        Your last two sentences here really highlight for me the difference in our approaches. You’re comfortable defining extremist “literally” as “someone who’s views are extreme in comparison to the norm.” But for me that just raises more questions than it settles, such as:

        What’s “the norm”? Who defines it? How? And how much room is there for deviation within the norm? Do we measure that in standard deviations? Could a view fall outside the norm and not yet be extreme?

        In a larger sense, I think are differences mirror other arguments about place v. process. You seem comfortable understanding politics geographically, with a center, right and left, and (perhaps) extremes of right and left. I tend to view it in historical terms, with each of these shifting over time. From that perspective, terms like center, right, left, extreme, radical, etc. look more like labels used in political rhetoric than well-defined positions.

  3. Solomon Kleinsmith
    May 29, 2011 | 8:50 pm

    “What’s “the norm”? Who defines it? How? And how much room is there for deviation within the norm? Do we measure that in standard deviations? Could a view fall outside the norm and not yet be extreme?”

    You’re trying to make a very simple thing into a complicated thing. Extreme views are views that are held by a small portion of the population, far from what most people think.

    You see… you’re comfortable using terms in ways YOU are comfortable with. I use them in ways that can actually be defined. Doing things your way makes it impossible to have a real conversation with someone, because you make the terms subjective, whereas I’m not making value statements when I say left, right and center, or even extremist.

    Even I hold a few views that are extreme. I don’t dodge that fact with dodgy junk like asking how many standard deviations is required for it to be extreme, or trying to explain it away by saying that, maybe/hopefully/someday the views of the rest of the country will shift to meet mine.

    Everything does shift over time, but you don’t know where they WILL shift. All you know is the best data you have as to where it is now, or where it was very recently. Going with anything else is guesswork at best, and more likely personal ego trying to project what you think SHOULD be onto what IS.

    • Jason
      May 30, 2011 | 3:42 am

      I’ve appreciated this back and forth, but I fear we’re doomed to continue talking past one another. A few closing thoughts:

      From my perspective, these things already are complicated and subjective. Neither of us seem satisfied with the others’ definitions, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      I don’t consider it very polite to suggest this my questions are “dodgy junk” or that this is a “personal ego project.” Remember, we’re both bloggers here.

      Finally, you’re right that I’m more interested in what I hope COULD BE than what IS.

      There’s plenty of room in the political blogosphere for every kind of project. I hope you’ll respect mine as I’ve respected yours.

  4. Solomon Kleinsmith
    May 30, 2011 | 3:55 am

    If people are talking to each other, and using terms that are not based on reality, but rather on the future that the other either wants or expects, then that just doesn’t make any sense.

    Saying someone is a centrist is using it in the present tense… it quite literally is ridiculous to use the term in a way that represents what you think a centrist MIGHT look like some day in the future when you’re talking about someone now.

    Redefining terms to fit your agenda is SPIN. Regardless of either of our personal opinions, and spin doesn’t belong in serious discourse. If you can’t even talk to someone without spinning, then yeah, you are playing games that would be accurately called “dodgy junk”, and you’d have to be pretty egotistical to think you can redefine commonly used political terms just because you would like people to shift their perception of them.