Name familiarity is the only thing that matters in all but the single most publicized elections, and every political consultant knows it. To this end, the life of the elected official is little more than a constant pitch for campaign contributions to imprint their name in the public by saturating it with campaign media—viewing public be damned.
But my purpose here is not to complain about commercials. What concerns me is my observation that campaign contributions—the lifeblood of political life—depend more and more on embracing extreme positions and not compromising from them. This reality has worked to squeeze the nation’s moderate voices from its legislative chambers.
But first: Who are the “moderates”?
Most ideologies tend to emphasize select issues, and thus are easy to recognize. We moderates are hard to define because we tend to see value in many things. For example, conservatives view most environmental interests as the enemy of business interests, and liberals are prone to view staunch law enforcement as the enemy of civil liberties. But the moderates view these issues as a false dichotomy. Moderates — rightly — believe business and environmental interests, and the interests of civil liberties and law enforcement, can and should each be pursued simultaneously.
We moderates believe strongly in personal responsibility, and advocate for a generally free capitalist economy. But we just as strongly believe that government is not the enemy of the free market—that the government can be a force for good in helping both individuals and macroeconomies realize their potential. We don’t believe government can solve every problem, and have a healthy interest in checks against government overreach. But moderates believe—and not without substantial history on our side—that government can solve many problems. We are mindful of the following government successes, which are but a few of many:
- The internet, which was a public/private partnership.
- The majority of our seniors lived in poverty before Social Security and Medicare (and even before the Great Depression).
- Public health programs have created a historically unrecognizable society free of most communicable diseases.
- The business cycle was much more pronounced and chaotic before the Federal Reserve.
- The GI bill funded the college education of about 16 million World War II and Korean veterans—virtually creating the middle class we know today.
- The Post Office, despite being chronically underfunded, allows commerce to take place in areas that would be unserved by private couriers.
- Medicare is hands-down the most efficient health insurance program in the country.
- Eisenhower’s interstate highway system exponentially augmented commercial activity, and its expansion to more than two lanes of traffic has made travel much safer (though it also created urban sprawl).
- The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have for more than forty years kept American airways and waterways from becoming like China’s.
- The auto bailout, despite being unpopular everywhere but in Michigan and Ohio (and I opposed it too), in hindsight was staggeringly successful. More than one million US jobs were saved and most of the money has been paid back to the Federal government.
Yet we are sensitive to the potential for bad when government programs are enacted thoughtlessly or without checks and balances. The Endangered Species Act has stifled some of the most potentially beneficial commercial development, without regard to whether the species being protected had any significance to an ecosystem. Despite some important successes, the No Child Left Behind Act has curtailed much of teachers’ latitude to use independent judgment in the classroom. Richard Nixon unleashed the FBI against his political enemies. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 probably created the “Dust Bowl.” The “War On Drugs” has cost a trillion dollars, overcrowded our federal prisons, incentivized drug cartels all over Latin America—and hardly put a dent on drug addiction. Then there’s pork. The Joint Strike Fighter, which itself went $55 billion over its projected cost, included a saga involving an engine that cost half a billion dollars in fiscal year 2010, long after it had been determined the engine wouldn’t even be used. A few well-connected individuals kept the project running in their district.
Whereas conservatives and liberals generally filter out the good and bad in government in accordance with their respective biases, moderates remain acutely aware of the potential for both. This makes us a lot quieter than most people and keeps us from receiving much attention.
But we make great policy.
More than ever, we need moderates. The challenges of the 21st century require sharp, moderate thinking.
We have to solve our long-term debt problem, which will require reform to Social Security—at least through the baby-boomer generation, reigning in our military budget, and bringing in sufficient revenue without overly sapping the private sector. We have to attract the world’s geniuses, while securing ourselves from existential threats to national security. We have to protect ourselves from terror, while protecting our civil liberties from government overreach. We have to keep our healthcare systems at a high level of quality, while keeping them accessible. We have to allow our entrepreneurs the space to grow the economy, but make sure economic growth is possible at every income level. We have to punish crime, while addressing the root causes of crime. Finally, we have to produce high levels of energy, while limiting carbon emissions.
These are complicated problems with complicated solutions, and politicians on the reactionary extremes are woeful to solve them.
But campaign contributions funnel their way to politicians based on loyalty, not competence and thoughtfulness. Whether this loyalty is to gun manufacturers, the environment, seniors, drug manufacturers, military contractors, farmers, Israel, labor, banks, evangelicals, or nutritional supplements, politicians who want the bucks have to convince their donors that they will see a return on investment. And this means loyalty with almost no bounds. Donors want fighters.
Not surprisingly, moderates aren’t exactly known for being fighters. We are the “soft” compromisers; the ones who see the merits of both sides of an argument; the last ones to speak in a debate; the endlessly qualifying; the careful; reluctant; hesitant; skeptical; precise. Moderates usually form their opinions after the attention-deficited media and Twitter “trending topics” have long moved on. And as such, we moderates will rarely be reliable champions for various causes—and rarely excite donors.
So how do we restore our public halls with moderates?
Simple. If the extremes are well represented, then it stands to reason that the middle must be well represented. Even fought for. In the same way the gun lobby, the environmental lobby, the Israel lobby, the senior lobby, and the all other lobbies have their champions, America needs a moderate lobby and moderate champions. America needs people who will fight—but for compromise.
Moderates need to get proactive. We need political action committees who will fund campaigns only of demonstrably competent and pragmatic lawmakers. Only when politicians know that they will be rewarded for compromise will they compromise. This is the blueprint for change. Not moral authority. Not idealism. Just the giving and withholding of campaign contributions, funded by people whose interest is the country as a whole.