My CTNewsJunkie colleague, Susan Bigelow, wrote a polemical piece last month about extremists dominating our politics. She defined a moderate as “someone who honestly considers genuine, good-faith proposals from both left and right and does not believe in any kind of political extremism.”
According to Bigelow, moderates are faced with extremists who have transformed what politics and moderation mean. Political centrists need to be awakened toward specific causes by pragmatic political leaders.
Moderates are hardly heard and they are barely organized compared to extremists – particularly in this era. Much of the political rhetoric we read and hear is coming from the loudest supporters that purport to be Democratic or Republican. It’s a natural tendency to hear more from those that are emboldened and cohesive than from political moderates.
In my classes, I refer to political moderates as the “C-word” and whisper: “Centrists.” My students laugh or stare confused that centrist would be such a problematic label. Some students inquire why centrists are often elusive. I mention that the majority of Americans are politically moderate. Extremists are brash, eccentric and annoying. So they ultimately draw the attention. And who gets lost in the mix are the majority of Americans – the moderates.
Americans tend to romanticize our government as a democracy, but technically the United States is a constitutional republic where we elect public officials to arguably represent our concerns. In an effort to highlight specific causes, some will engage in tactics to win over our public officials’ and media attention.
Another perspective offers that our political system requires organized groups to lobby or seek influence through pluralism. Pluralistic approaches rely on individuals to be engaged in groups and organizations so they can effectively lobby, petition or gain attention from public officials. Not that I am the biggest proponent of pluralism, but many political scientists like Robert Dahl find that those who are the most organized with significant connections and resources, curry the most favor with politicos.
If moderates were ever to organize the way many extremists do, they could be more effective than extremists. They have the numbers and would gain the political and financial connections. But moderates are hardly organized and by definition they are not as brash as extremists.
This is not to say that moderates can’t succeed. In fact, they often weigh in especially during election season. When motivated, centrists can engage – en masse. But there needs to be a reason. Political scientist Vincent Hutchings refers to a significant issue becoming a uniting force for many to be awakened or what he calls the “sleeping giant principle” when voters engage in elections, donate time or money to candidates and causes. There can be moments when Americans, and particularly centrists, engage, if the cause is ripe. Beyond lacking organization then, they need motivation.
But let’s face it, extremists win the interest of too many of our public officials and media because they’re attention-getters. They dominate our public discourse and airwaves while limiting centrists in the political arena.
Bigelow suggests that moderates are missing critical political moments in the modern era to make transformative change. “At some point, staying on the sidelines is essentially the same as supporting the worst people in politics. We passed that point long ago,” she offers. “Maybe one day it will be possible to be a moderate again, but not any time soon. In the meantime, beware the snake oil salesmen promising a middle road that no longer exists.”
The middle road has always been there, but we need to motivate moderates and find ways to organize them. After all, moderates have the numbers – far more than extremists.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
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