Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Practical Moderation

Sean Aqui outlines some tactics to back the vision.

In my (reader_iam's) estimation, Aqui is one of the very best contributors at Donklephant, and one of the sharpest, most thoughtful advocates of the moderate movement anywhere. He is a model for balanced thinking and writing, and while I surely can't say I agree with him on every issue, I've never read a post of his that wasn't worth every minute, and then some.

(For the record, I wouldn't know him from Adam if he magically appeared on the couch next to me this minute. Frankly, I've never even bothered to google. Hmmm: making a mental note... .)

In the post to which I linked in the first paragraph (which he first published at Unity08), he moves beyond the standard, lofty rhetoric about the virtues of the moderate cause and suggests some actions which any like-minded individual can take. (By the way, I don't mean the rhetoric reference in a pejorative way: It's just that it's necessary to move beyond that, and quickly, decisively and persistently, if the point is to have an impact in any practical way.)
...But what will really force the parties to pay attention is fundraising. If supporting moderate viewpoints generates huge sums of cash, the parties will become more moderate. Rhetoric and ideology have power, but money is king.

So contribute to moderate candidates, wherever they may be. Support (or create) moderate PACs. Volunteer for campaigns. When party fundraisers call, tell them that you have already contributed to the moderates in the party and if they want a party-level donation they need to start addressing your concerns on a party level as well.

Excellent! And carefully note the "wherever they may be" part. I'm interpreting that to mean in places other than one's own community or state (though, for those of us registered as independent or, as in my case, "no party," there's an additional meaning, and opportunity). The activist bases of both major parties didn't achieve the influence they have by minding their own business and sticking only to parochial and/or local issues and races. Moderates need to learn to meddle more in other people's sandboxes, just as their more partisan counterparts have been doing for a long time now!
Even more importantly, convince others to do the same. If moderates indeed represent a large and decisive slice of the electorate, the parties will get the message loud and clear. Even if it doesn’t lead directly to election victories, it will strengthen the hand of moderates in both parties.

I think this is a real problem for moderate voters, who by definition have a tendency to shy away from mixing it up or advocating among people who don't share their moderate tendencies.

I'm admittedly generalizing here, but moderates often tend to get tied up by their ability and inclination to see (and even embrace pieces of) both sides, a mindset that is useful for honest and balanced analysis but disadvantageous for activism. They frequently have strong ties--both ideologically and practically speaking--with more partisan people on both sides of The Divide, which perhaps leads to a too-strong preference for keeping the peace. That also leads them to making the mistake of putting up with being called wishy-washy or lacking in principles when those charges are unjust. (It should go without saying that sometimes such accusations are indeed, well, justified.)

To get back to Acqui's post, I'm also impressed with this point:
In the short term, the key is to note that seats are gerrymandered to make them safe for parties, not particular ideologies. If you don’t care about the party label, then the answer is simple: work to help moderates win their party’s nomination in a particular district. The more we can make a race be a choice between two moderates, the more we can make the gerrymandered system work for us by electing — and protecting — moderates.

At a minimum that means voting in primaries, and doing your homework on the candidates. But that’s not really enough, since at that point you’re just picking from a pre-selected group of candidates. What it really takes is getting involved in the party of your choice, so that moderate candidates stand a better chance of surviving the internal party debates that precede the public primaries. Anything that weakens the strangehold that partisans have on party organizations will help move the parties toward the center. [All emphasis added.]

I'm glad to see these suggestions, because although the approach being advocated will likely take a long time of persistence to bring forth significant fruit, it strikes me as having a far better chance of success than trying to establish a third party, the prospects for which I am more than deeply skeptical on most days.

Apart from all the obvious problems with trying to launch a successful third party, such efforts inevitably are attempted on the national level, from the top-down, which not only is antithetical to the mood of the electorate just now, but completely disregards one of the oldest "truisms" in the book: All politics is local. (At least, it starts out that way.) Even if the "all" is somewhat overstated, there's no denying that what's been most successful over time is building from the bottom up, and that retail politics--whether in-person shaking of hands, skillful rallying of 'netroot communities (which operate very closely along the local, rather than national, model) or whatever--is more effective and nurtures deeper roots than wholesale ever will.

I could sign on to an awful lot of what Aqui's advocating (some of it I already do, and have been for a long time). I do have one more cautionary note to sound, however: Beware of the tendency for moderate movements to really become just a cover for another flavor of the left, with the standard assumptions but without some of the hot-button rhetoric. In short, it's important to define "moderate" in terms of actual substance, and not just style.

I know that there are those who will jump to disagree with me, which of course is fine, but it's been my personal observation that those who fall slightly left of center are much more prone to track more toward the partisan-left over time (if not sooner) than those falling slightly right of center are to move toward the partisan-right. I don't know why that is, but that's been my experience--including back in the days when I tended more left myself. It will take tremendous self-discipline on the part of leaders--and a very, very strong commitment to be willing to both question the source of their own assumptions and compromise on even their own pet issues--to avoid that fatal trap. (Note: I'm definitely not speaking specifically to Aqui here, but rather more generally.)

Do with that caveat what you will. In any case, for now, you can count me in.