As the sun rises and dabs Caesars Palace with morning rouge, irony struts down the strip of casinos, shops and nightclubs here in Las Vegas.
What better place to contemplate moderation, the topic of a panel and my purpose for being here, than in the epicenter of human excess? The Black Mountain Institute (at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas) posed this question to a panel of three, which also included Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Fox News’ Juan Williams: “Is moderation possible in American politics?”
The implied consensus would seem to be: Probably not. Or at least not without massive reforms and/or a renaissance of civic duty. The hyper-partisanship we at least say we love to hate isn’t likely to recede, given the rewards.
Although the discussion was aimed at politics, the question can’t be considered without also contemplating the broader culture. Conveniently, the Vegas strip provides an apt metaphor for both the culture and the political medium. Call it the American Id-eology: Ids all the way, supersized. We are, in a word, immoderate.
This was not always so. Once upon a time, moderation in all things was the maxim by which most people tried to live their lives. Today moderation is merely boring. Extreme is the virtue of the cool, as well as of a populace whose attention span compares favorably to a gnat’s. Judging from the girths ambling along America’s sidewalks, few appetites go untended.
Likewise in the political realm, passions roam unbridled. By saner standards, what would be readily identified as fanaticism is considered conviction, while resistance to compromise is allegiance to principle. In an environment where talk radio and cable TV set the tone of discourse, dispassion and facts give way to heat and opinion. In the policy arena, moral principle morphs into purity tests for politicians and moderates run for the hills.
Such does not bode well for a nation in trouble. What we need are calm voices and pragmatic minds. Instead, we have fewer people self-identifying as moderate, down from 40 to 35 percent in the past 10 years. Yet, stop people on the street and they’ll tell you they’re sick of the partisanship and gridlock. They want Washington to reform itself. But do they really?
I’m not so sure. Meanwhile, might we cast an eye inward? Yes, there are substantive changes that might alleviate the partisan nature of our political arena. Campaign finance reform was one such effort, though in its place we got a more damaging mechanism for corruption, the now-benighted super PACs.
Ornstein suggested another radical idea — making voter turnout mandatory, which would dilute the effect of special interests and advertising. He quickly pointed out that this will never happen in a country that hates all things mandatory. Thus, we might look deeper at the causes of our immoderate natures and see where voluntary, individual adjustments might be made.
First, we must recognize moderation once again as a virtue, both in our public and private lives. Those who shun political moderation view its practitioners as traitors to some higher cause, spineless and weak. Many Republicans cheered Olympia Snowe’s announcement that she would retire from the U.S. Senate. What use was a moderate voice to the hard-right agenda?
But the shunners are something worse than spineless or weak. They are incurious and, by the rigidity of their convictions, lacking in imagination. Want boring? Talk to someone enamored of his own certitude.
Moderation isn’t an endpoint or even a center point, necessarily. Rather than a template, it is an approach, a tone, a cock of the head, an open mind, a willing ear, an unjaundiced eye. A moderate wonders what other facts might be brought to bear. A moderate figures we’re in this together and believes that a meeting of minds is not tantamount to surrender.
Perhaps the nation gets what it deserves, but I’d rather think not. One young woman in our audience identified herself as a millennial and wondered why her generation should bother to vote. Because! I wanted to shout, you don’t get to complain about the state of affairs if you don’t participate in the process. Because it is your civic duty.
But I would have been shouting at the wrong person. She was, after all, in attendance and cared enough to pose a sincere question. She was by her presence exactly what civic duty demands. I would further submit that civic duty also demands moderation.
To answer the panel’s question, moderation isn’t only possible, it is crucial.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@ washpost.com.