First, an understanding: The moderate conservative is not the same as the moderate liberal is not the same as the independent. Please know that I’m not taking a side here. This essay isn’t about me. It’s about you.
You must be exhausted.
This presidential election has been a shining study in how to alienate the middle ground. It doesn’t seem to make sense: shoving aside what was long revered as the most significant voting portion of the American population. The middle class is verifiably vanishing, and it feels for all the world like the moderate voter is, too.
It’s no surprise, then, that moderates would feel like a dying breed. Where is your candidate? Are you no longer a vote to be prized, a favor to be curried? As the population’s income seems pushed to the low and high margins, so too are we to be governed by extremes?
To me, that’s the most telling—and most disconcerting—sign to emerge from this election cycle.
When you have no one to vote for, you either don’t vote or you have to choose an extreme you don’t like, thereby contributing to its growth. Either choice makes you a fang in the mouth of a snake that’s eating itself.
The false dichotomy of the election constructs an equally false narrative of the country and forces it in one of two directions that I’m still pretty sure most voters don’t want to go in—a choice that seems, for moderates, to be the ultimate devil vs. deep blue sea. As someone who lived in his Congressional district years ago, and who has close friends in Ohio, trust me: when John Kasich appears moderate, you know it’s trouble. Meanwhile, a former first lady and a Jewish, self-proclaimed socialist are vying for the White House with no other competition from their party. No matter what you think of either of them, that should be holy-Christ quality stuff on any number of levels. Instead, the circus of the GOP makes the Democrats seem dull.
That’s a problem. It’s terminal velocity, the phenomenon in which, no matter how far above the speed limit you’re going, at some point, you get so used to the recklessness and so confident in your ability to handle it that it doesn’t seem like too big a deal to push the needle a little farther, until you lose control.
I’m not saying the candidates on either side are reckless—though I think some of them are. I’m saying that while both sides have found candidates who ignite and engage a part of the electorate that has never felt so well-represented before, that galvanizing force, played out over and over again in media, makes everyone who isn’t that extreme feel like they’re either unrecognized or missing the boat. It’s a recipe for disenfranchisement, and disenfranchisement is why you stop voting, and that’s how you get ignored. The fascination at the political process has been replaced by a frenzy over the maddest parts of it—so much so that the nation seems to have forgotten completely that these people will have to actually govern if we put them in the White House.
The presidency has become a cult of personality and a receptacle for derision that has reduced it, effectively, to nothing more than a figurehead position. Technically, this can be “blamed” on CBS News and the Washington Post with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal… but who could blame Walter Cronkite for telling the nation what he saw, and who could blame Woodward & Berntsein for exposing what their dogged reporting uncovered? Still, those two significantly historic moments in a time of an increasingly global mass media were the beginning of the end for president-worship. Scholars, historians, and journalists generally agree that this was when the presidency was demystified, when the people came to see the humanity of the office and the fallibility of the office-holder.
In the American political system, Congress is where the true power is. When Congress is the only place where things can get done, and the president is a person who a large percentage of Congress will not abide, intractability is sure to follow. Regardless of the positions of the presidential candidates I’m about to name, If you think the last seven years have been bad, you don’t want to see four under Trump, Cruz, Rubio or Sanders. If you think the rest represent the status quo, you almost can’t bear to see the next four under anyone but one of those four, because it seems like the only way anything will change at all is if the highest elected official in the country forces it to happen.
But here’s the thing: The last seven years have shown us that, no matter what we think of what he tried to force, the highest elected official in the country could not make it happen. If we liked him, we believed he was trying to do what was right for the country and was thwarted at every turn. If we didn’t like him, we believed he was creating a national nightmare like nothing we had ever seen, and we were relieved it didn’t go any farther than it had managed to go, which was still too far for us.
Think about the candidates right now and whether there’s a single one of them who won’t match that same description in four years.
Here’s part of what’s doing moderates wrong: “Moderate” has been conflated with “establishment,” creating another false narrative. What does “moderate” mean? Middle. Not extreme. Relatively reasonable, but generally dispassionate. What does “establishment” mean? Old Guard, right? The same people doing the same things, not taking us anywhere. It’s assigned without regard to reason or passion. It’s just normative. Well, Sanders has been a senator for 16 years. He’s more establishment than literally anybody in the GOP field except Kasich. He’s more establishment than Obama. By some definitions, he’s more establishment than Clinton. It’s not necessarily that the majority of American citizens don’t want reasonable individuals in government. It’s that they’re tired of us getting nowhere because the definition of insanity keeps playing itself out in Washington. So, from a purely academic perspective, Trump, Cruz, Carson and Rubio are legitimate anti-establishment and un-moderate candidates. Sanders is just un-moderate. Jeb! is anti-establishment from a federal government perspective (despite being related to the establishment). Clinton is probably more moderate than we think, and her establishmentism is harder to parse.
You might be able to tell at this point that I believe that if there’s a presidential candidate who truly represents what you want to see happening in the country, what’s required for you to see the change you want is to see it represented in a significant percentage in Congress. Right now, that doesn’t exist for most of the candidates we’re considering.
But there is good news for you, Moderate Voter. You’re still at an advantage. Most of Congress—the quiet section—is still moderate. The intractability of the last seven years was because both parties were houses divided, and the Tea Party took everyone hostage (including John Boehner). They were loud and organized, and they sucked voters in. But there aren’t that many of them. There are about 63, or 11 percent of Congress. The reason someone like Bernie Sanders wouldn’t get his plans through Congress isn’t because the Tea Party will shout him down, although they will. Rather, it’s because there aren’t enough people in Congress who are as far left as his ideas are. But if Sanders supporters get organized at a more local level and find candidates that can generate support, Congress will shift, just like the Tea Party made it do.
It’s easy to blame media for this. To some extent, it’s their fault; entertainment value is part of what they need and go after. But they go after it for you, because you consume it. Being a moderate has always seemed to mean appearing not just reasonable, but rather ho-hum… not reality TV, not opera. You don’t like candidates you find to be insipid panderers and you don’t those you find to be elitists. There’s nothing wrong, inherently, with the in-between. It’s just that the passions are higher on the margins, and people who are passionate and who feel like they’re gaining ground are a powerful audience—for media and for candidates. Both are there only because there’s an active, engaged, demonstrable audience for them. We know the newly long-suffered complaint that the mainstream media tell us what to think, but they show what they show because it’s what you watch. No matter how low the score is, there’s still a high score in the face-off. Sure, there are fewer and fewer people watching television as it happens. More people are nixing it altogether or going with Hulu, Roku, Netflix, Apple TV. But there’s still a No. 1 station. It’s the same way with voting, or worse, uninformed voting. Sure, there may be fewer votes, or fewer votes from less-educated people. But there’s still a winner.
In an era in which all the information you can want is literally at your fingertips, it comes down to three things: your ability to access it (a significant disadvantage for the poor), your tendency to critically analyze it (lower in apathetic and less-informed people), and your willingness to take more of what you feel is crap. The Tea Party came up in 2010 and grew in the Congressional elections that followed because the people who align with them were not willing to take any more of what they felt was crap. They kept track, they held grudges, and they organized around it. They got mad, and then they set about getting even.
You, moderates, aren’t mad enough yet. Maybe it’s because you’re… well… moderate. Not willing to make a scene. Not interested in a fight. Tired of the mayhem to which you’d feel you were contributing if you stood up and shouted.
I guess that’s sort of par for the course.
Still, moderates are so bad at actively finding candidates these days.
It’s probably too late for 2016, but here’s what has to happen in the next elections, both in 2018 and in 2020, if moderates want to reclaim ground:
Speak up. Demand someone else. Organize. Find candidates and actively support them from the beginning of their campaigns, beyond social media—but for the love of God, splatter them all over social media. Give them money. Give them time. Volunteer for them. Generate momentum.
And find a conflict to put moderate candidates in.
It seems antithetical for moderates to find conflict, but it’s the only way to get attention. Conflict is what media of all platforms cover. I swear to God, they don’t care who wins the conflict. There’s always going to be more conflict, no matter who wins, because the winner will go on to conflict with someone else. The only thing that’s interesting is the conflict itself. It’s why Jeb Bush has been poking Marco Rubio with a stick since the beginning of the race. He was betting Rubio would emerge as a better option when the Trump/Cruz Show started to fray at the seams. He was trying to create conflict to get attention. (He’s just dull and bad at conflict, bless him.)
Think of it this way: Why do you watch sports? Sure, you want your team to win, but isn’t a runaway victory kind of a bore? Who wants to watch that, really? It’s so much more exciting when there’s something at stake. So find something that’s at stake for your moderate candidate, stick them to it, and yell about it.
The middle class is vanishing. Don’t let moderates disappear, too. Be loud about being quiet. Don’t be milquetoast on issues; it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Consider the issues brought up by the extremes. What does it tell us about where we are as a nation? What’s the moderate’s position on that place and where we should be as a nation? Find it. Be passionate. Defend your ground.
And then get even.