I don’t have a firm opinion about whether Ned Lamont’s victory in last week’s Connecticut primary was good or bad news. However, as someone whose job is to study deliberative democracy, civil society, and related issues, I would like to address the thesis that Senator Lieberman’s “moderation” was good for democracy.

“Not necessarily,” is the short answer. I think one’s position on the political spectrum is independent of one’s impact on deliberation and the political culture. Moderates are no more likely to help the quality of our politics than are liberals or conservatives.

It’s worth recalling what kind of political debate we need:

1. We need choices among real alternatives. Sometimes, citizens are better served by relatively sharp choices than by a mushy middle. Also, it can be better for leaders to be motivated by strong principles than by mere party membership. Some people’s principles happen to land them in the center of the current American political spectrum, and that’s fine. But other politicians head for the center because they want to attract the median voter, not because of any principles that they can defend in public discussions.

I don’t know why (or whether) Senator Lieberman has been a centrist, but I do welcome the debate sparked by the Connecticut primary. As Eli Pariser, executive director of, said, “I think because the Connecticut primary was driven by real, deep issues that our nation should be grappling with, it’s exactly what our politics ought to be like, rather than nasty, gotcha bickering. … It was about big ideas and big challenges facing the country.”

2. Although we want real alternatives, we don’t want partisan animosity to rise to the level that members of the rival parties cannot cooperate, even when they happen to share the same principles (as they often do). Legislatures pass more bills when there is more “comity,” which can be defined as an ability to cooperate on topics that do not provoke ideological disagreement. Thus, to my fellow progressives who want Democrats to play more aggressively, I would say that’s not a path to passing progressive legislation. Without some Republican support, nothing will pass.

On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that moderates are always better at comity than strong liberals and conservatives. Some moderates (the ones who are hunting for the median voter) may be so strategic that they shun cooperation when they think they can score partisan points or make the other team look bad. Conversely, some real ideologues are so motivated by principle that they are happy to work with members of the opposite party when they see common ground. An example is Bob Barr, the right-wing former US Representative, who works well with civil libertarians because they share a skepticism about government. Senator Kennedy, despite a reputation for liberalism, is famous for working with Senator Hatch and others on the Republican side.

3. We need free and frank criticisms of the public performance of people in power. For example, criticizing the Bush Administration’s handling of Katrina, the budget, or Iraq does not harm democracy, deliberation, or civic engagement. On the contrary, it is wrong to try to shut down such criticism by suggesting that it helps terrorists. On the other hand, we don’t want people to commit the ad hominem fallacy, which is to reject an idea because those who defend it are flawed in some way (e.g., hypocritical or incompetent). Nor do we want criticism to focus on politicians’ private lives and private views, because that can simply discourage good people from entering public life. (Besides, we usually have very unreliable information about people’s private opinions.)

It’s not obvious to me that moderates are less likely than radicals to use ad hominem arguments. Senator Lieberman has used as many as Mr. Lamont.

4. We need to hold politicians accountable for what they promise on the campaign trail. On the other hand, we want them to be able to learn, listen, evolve, and negotiate after they are elected. Thus we shouldn’t go hunting for inconsistencies in their records as if those were always signs of bad faith.

Again, it’s not obvious that moderates are less likely to play “gotcha” when they spot changes in their opponents’ records. Maybe there is a pattern, and maybe there isn’t. Regardless, we know that some strong ideologues are also good deliberators who focus on issues, not personalities, and who allow their opponents to evolve. That means that moderation is not good in itself.

4 thoughts on “moderation

  1. airth10

    Agreed, moderates rarely stimulate the political gusto necessary to keep deliberative democracy alive. But was Joe Lieberman’s position really moderate? If it was, it was a moderation that stimulated debate. So in today’s political climate there may be no such thing as moderation and if there is, the robust and determined democratic deliberation of today will ensure that it does not remain moderate. Perhaps there is no room for lasting moderation if one is in politics.

  2. Patrick

    It seems to me that “moderation” in today’s political context is nothing more than adding up a variety of positions (negative one for each “liberal” position, positive one for each “conservative” position) and seeing how close we get to zero. The individual positions may not be moderate at all, but if the candidate as a whole doesn’t fit into either a Red or Blue box, we call them “moderates”. It’s a lazy label that ignores the texture and richness of debates, and tempers the perpsectives of people who may actually bring something new to the discussion.

  3. Michael Weiksner

    Although there are conflicting reasons, isn’t really an empirical question whether moderates contribute to and/or value deliberation more than strong ideologues? Despite the interesting arguments you make, my impression is that moderation is in fact likely to be good for democracy (or at least deliberation). If my impression isn’t correct about ideologues, what about the case of moderates versus strong partisans?

    A suggestion: please cross-post this on the site.

  4. Peter Levine

    I originally wrote, “It’s an empirical question whether moderation correlates with deliberative behavior,” but I cut that sentence to reduce the number of lengthy words in the post. It is, however, an empirical question. I’m not sure whether I’d place my bet on moderates, ideologues, or partisans.

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