We are moderates. We are also centrists. The terms are not interchangeable. Moderation is an approach to solving problems, not an ideology. Centrism, on the other hand, is a set of principles that describe our political beliefs better than what either the Republicans or the Democrats are offering.
What we have seen in Cleveland and are seeing in Philadelphia is not centrism, it is not moderation, and it is not working for the country. The conventions are a distillation of everything wrong with our politics. Right now America needs to elect more politicians who do not fit neatly into one political tribe or the other, and we need all of our representatives to act more moderately.
In 1787, the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin harbored many concerns about the proposed Constitution and had argued vigorously for provisions that did not make the final draft. Yet, in the final hours of debate at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin urged his colleagues “who may still have objections to it … to doubt a little of their own infallibility” and adopt an excellent, if imperfect, document.
Being moderate is a personality trait. It is how one understands the motivations of others and how one solves problems. A moderate is a realist, accepting how people are, not how we would like them to be. A moderate is open to listening to the truths of others.
Franklin’s display of moderation and profound humility persuaded others to compromise enough to create this country. Yet today, the very qualities that gave us such strength at our founding have been maligned by extreme positions, leading to political paralysis and a dismal failure to solve the pressing problems of our time.
The insidious allegation that has crept into America’s political ego is that moderates lack principles. They seek only to split the difference between the positions taken by their noble opponents and adopt mediocre solutions. That is both wrong and dangerous.
Moderates value humility over party, and even over ideology, because they seek first to solve problems. “The greatness of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “lies in her ability to repair her faults.”
How do we address our long-term fiscal challenges, confront global terrorism, repair a tattered immigration system, reduce health care costs? We demand that our elected representatives act with the moderation befitting a diverse country of 330 million people. Moderation is no weakness; after all, the Constitution is a pretty darn good document.
Being a centrist, on the other hand, means sharing a set of core political principles that do not fit neatly into either party at present: fiscal responsibility, environmental responsibility, social tolerance, and a commitment to economic opportunity.
Centrism draws the most compelling ideas from each party. Centrists respect the Republicans’ historical fiscal conservatism and the skepticism of what an ever-enlarging government can accomplish. We appreciate the importance of personal responsibility and wealth creation.
Yet centrists also admire the Democrats’ empathy for the disadvantaged, the long-standing support for civil and personal rights, and the commitment to environmental protection. The list of respected accomplishments of both sides is long. But so is the list of rigid beliefs that need to be jettisoned.
As centrists, we believe climate change is real (basic science), but also that our entitlement programs need reform (basic math). Those two commonsense beliefs mean that we could not win a Republican or a Democratic primary in most states.
A rising proportion of Americans strongly support positions articulated by both parties and strongly reject certain ideas from both parties. In The Centrist Manifesto, Charles Wheelan argues that a centrist party could “take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.”
Is there such a person as an angry moderate centrist? You bet. We are angry that our political discourse is so superficial and coarse. Our elected leaders are not listening, they are not humble, and they are not resolving anything of importance.
We are angry that the two parties have monopolized the political process, often by making rules that perpetuate their stranglehold on power. Forty-three percent of Americans now describe themselves as independent, yet there is only one independent in the Senate and none in the House. How is that possible in a representative democracy?
We are angry that our leaders outside of politics are so timid in confronting the political status quo. Where are those creative and courageous thinkers, like the “disrupters” in Silicon Valley, when America clearly needs to disrupt the two-party duopoly?
The Constitution did not create political parties. Our parties have arisen (and disappeared) in response to the needs of the times: the Federalists, the Democrats, the Progressives, the Republicans. Right now, we need some political innovation.
America’s capacity to govern (and lead the world) is compromised. We are angry with each other and deeply troubled about our future. Some find solace in moral certainty.
As moderate centrists, we find that deeply troubling. The opposite of moral certainty is not ambivalence. It is toleration, moral humility, intense personal engagement, and a fierce loyalty to governing a diverse nation in complex times.
So yes, we are moderates, and we are centrists, and as we watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, we are mad as hell.
Steven Merritt Seibert is a former elected official and state agency director in Florida.
Charles Wheelan teaches public policy at Dartmouth College and is the author of The Centrist Manifesto and, most recently, Naked Money.