As you may have noticed already, my use of the term “moderate” is a bit different than what you’ll hear in ordinary political discourse. When someone is called a moderate that usually just means “less dedicated to liberal or conservative principles than other members of the person’s party.” It’s a policy scale that imagines U.S. politics as a one-dimensional spectrum along which some people fall closer to the center than others.
As far as that goes, it’s not too bad. There are ways in which a one-dimensional representation fits our politics just fine. But I have two major problems with it.
- Definitional. If we imagine the political center as some average of all political opinion, how do we accurately measure that? Sure, there are ways to quantify where individuals fall relative to one another, but these are necessarily artificial. If we instead imagine that there’s some hypothetically constant “center” position, how do we know where that “center” is? How one defines the center of the spectrum has a great deal to do with where one stands personally.
- Historical. The range of political opinion shifts over time. So any hypothetical mean will vary wildly from moment to moment. And there’s no historical mechanism for ensuring an equal number of individuals fall to the left or right (or far left and far right) of any imagined center.
Instead, here I use the term “moderate” to denote a set of political commitments that transcend individual policy preferences. That means they can be held and practiced without hypocrisy by both liberals and conservatives. Of course,sometimes it’s useful to talk about those committed to policy positions that blend liberal and conservative principles. I’ll call such people “centrists” and their political preferences “centrism.” Not because I think others are using the terms incorrectly, but because clear language helps us communicate more effectively. It is, after all, largely about semantics.
The above was prompted in part by this Washington Post column and this Time blog followup. Notice how they use the term “moderate” to mean what I will call “centrist” and how those policy preferences have shifted between the parties. Same policies, very different political reading as conservatives try to label them as liberal and vice versa.