Confessions of a Reluctant Moderate
How a trip to Scotland and some reflection on the Protestant Reformation made me rethink my political identity.
During a recent trip to Scotland, I was visiting the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral and, I felt profoundly stirred by the tumbled stones that are all that’s left of what was, by many accounts, a truly awe-inspiring piece of religious architecture. Standing there, buffeted by the winds coming in off of the North Sea, I felt a longing to see this building as it must have been in the height of its glory, before the fires of the Revolution burned through Scotland and it was slowly abandoned. This feeling recurred several times during my stay in that country as I visited the ruins of several abbeys and monasteries that dot the landscape: Holyrood, Melrose, Jedburgh…time and again I saw the ravages that the Reformation had left behind.
When I returned to the States, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Protestant Reformation and, as I read about it, I found myself more than a little horrified by the extremes to which the reformers went in their efforts to purge the faith of impurities. The more I read about this period of history, the more I saw the parallels between then and now. Then, as now, there was an establishment that was flawed and, far too often, corrupt. Then, as now, there were those who wanted to initiate change from within the system. And then, as is the case today, there were those who saw the old church as irredeemable, so rotten that it must be utterly overthrown.
What’s more, I came to a realization that was startling. Much as I’d always sort of thought myself as a tried-and-true progressive — indeed, sometimes a little radical — I gradually had to accept that, in some important ways, I was in fact a moderate. I was, as you might imagine, a little startled, shocked even, to come to this realization, particularly since there’s a strain of leftist thought that suggests that to be a moderate is in its own way worse than being a conservative. For me to accept this fact about myself meant reshaping my mental conception of who I was as a political person and that, as you might imagine, was a bit of a heavy lift.
I wasn’t always like this. When I first became interested in Democratic politics and joined my local chapter of the Young Democrats of America, I was a firebrand. I wanted radical change, and I wanted it now (needless to say, this created many vicious arguments with my conservative parents). My local chapter of the YDA was, unsurprisingly, split almost exactly in half, with the moderates on one side and the more progressive members on the other. Our differences were real, of course, yet despite them, we generally managed to come together on most of the important issues. We recognized that there was far more that bound us together than that drove us apart.
As I got older, and particularly since Trump was elected in 2016, I began to grow a little more measured in how I responded to issues. I was no longer the staunch anti-interventionist that I once was, since I know recognize that when the United States withdraws from the world stage it enables the rise of dictators like Putin, Erdogan, and Bolsinaro. I believe that corporations and billionaires aren’t intrinsically evil and that the free market economy is good at some things at not so good at others (medical care is in the latter category).
Now, let me be clear. In ideology, I tend to on the leftist side of things. I believe that the wealthy should pay their fair share and that their dirty money shouldn’t be used to tip the political scales in their favour. I am staunchly in support of LGBTQ+ rights. I believe that urgent action is needed on climate change, and I fully support the right of all women to choose what to do with their bodies. I fiercely believe in the need for criminal justice reform, and that includes channeling money away from police departments and into social support services.
At the same time, I recognize that my beliefs about this don’t match up to many of other people in the country, not just those on the far left but even some of those in the middle and certainly those on the right. The United States is, in many ways, very much a center-right country (with some parts skewing more toward the center-left), and one has to contend with the realities of that rather than wishing for a world that doesn’t yet, and might never, exist. One has to accept that compromise is a necessary part of the American system of governance, as unpleasant, frustrating, and often unsatisfying that is. That’s part of the burden and responsibility of being a citizen in a republic like ours. You have to be willing to accept that you’re not going to get your way all the time and that even when you do you might not get it in as full of a measure as you would like.
What I am not, however, is a radical, either in philosophy or in practice. Unlike, say, many of those on the far left, I don’t think that the Senate should be dissolved. Philosophically, its reason for existence is, in part, to act as a check on the rash impulses that are typically a hallmark of the House. The reality is that a unicameral legislature only sounds like a good idea when you’re the one who happens to have control. Does anyone really want to contemplate what it would be like to have a unicameral legislature that’s controlled by the Republicans, particularly in their present incarnation? That seems to me like a one-way ticket to absolute disaster. Given that the Republican Party has now been almost completely remade in the image of Trump, it’s frankly terrifying to think of a body made up of Trump acolytes making laws of any kind, let alone those that would govern an entire country. With no set of principles except a sort of toxic grievance politics that sees everything that isn’t white, Christian, and heterosexual as somehow un-American, one can imagine the sort of brutal legislation they would ram through. For today’s Republicans, Democrats aren’t just their political opponents, they’re literally an enemy that must be destroyed.
But of course, that’s the problem with moral absolutism of any kind. It inspires a certain kind of zero-sum mentality in those who aren’t totally with you are against you. It encourages a mindset in which anything short of totally victory is meaningless and in which compromise of any sort is heresy and the rankest sort of conciliation. Though the left is inclined to do this more and more in recent years, it’s important to remember that the Right has more than its fair share of the blame. The GOP’s catering to the Tea Party — notorious for its refusal to compromise on almost anything — sowed the seeds for its own destruction, though unfortunately it managed to drag everyone else down with it.
Despite all of this, I still passionately believe in the fundamental goodness of the American system. I believe that there is space in our politics for moderation and compromise, and for this reason I welcome the flood of Republicans who have already announced their intention to vote for and support Biden in November. I don’t for a moment believe that all Republicans are evil, though obviously many of them have definitely lost their way. I strongly believe that this is a moment that calls for all decent and ethical Americans to join together to beat back the rising tide of fascism.
Our country isn’t too far gone, and it just might be the moderates who save it.