What’s a Moderate?

Moderation is the opposite of ideology. It’s flexible and solution oriented. Where an ideologue will reject a given solution because it doesn’t fit into a broader world view, a moderate will try anything that promises to work. Free markets where that looks promising, more regulation where it appears needed; tax cuts at moments when the economy needs a boost, increases when deficit reduction is in order; less government in some areas and more in others.

The downside of thinking like this is that it can appear that moderates don’t believe in anything. But, of course, we do. In keeping with the spirit of moderation (see #6 below, “Intellectual Humility”), I don’t claim to have cornered the market on defining everything moderation means.

But here’s my go at defining some principles of moderation. I’d appreciate it if you’d add your own, subtract from mine or tweak my language in the comments section at the end of this blog.


Classical Liberal Values. 

The first and most important principle of moderation is a respect for the classical liberal values of free speech, the rule of law, tolerance and reason. 


Middle Class Values. 

Hard work, personal responsibility, resilience, self-reliance, these are all good things. Bill Clinton said it best: We should live in a society where if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to succeed. 


Free Markets Tempered By Community Values. 

The free market is the best engine to create material wealth. But it doesn’t have all the answers. It needs to be tempered with values that it might not otherwise recognize, like respect for workers and the environment. 


Liberal Stability.

Stability is important. It’s hard to pursue happiness or fulfillment in a war zone. Russia, China and Cuba are all fairly stable countries, yet they’re not free and open societies. Hence the qualifier: stability but within a classical liberal environment. 


Reason Wherever It Leads.

Idealogues employ facts and reason. But they cherry pick their facts and train strict reason only on the arguments of their opponents. Moderates allow facts and reason to take them wherever they lead. 


Intellectual Humility.

Moderates are the opposites of idealogues. We don’t believe we have all the answers. We’re open to other views. So could that take us anywhere? Not quite. We’re still rooted in classical liberal and middle class values. 


A Moderate Temperament.

There’s a reason that you don’t often hear phrases like “passionate moderation.” Moderates eschew emotional arguments and appeals to passions in favor of cool reason. A heated argument is also most likely a waste of everyone’s time. 



Moderates believe that the best solution to any specific problem is usually one born of compromise. Moderates are suspicious of absolutes, bottom lines and ultimatums. 


The Loyal Opposition. 

When in power we should be generous to the minority view and when in the minority ourselves we should be loyal to the broader principles. Whether in power or out of it, we should act as if the roles will be reversed tomorrow. 


Earned Respect for Authority.

Authority should be respected, but only when it is earned. Parents, teachers, bosses and public officials occupy positions of authority and the position itself should be respected. But how individuals act within those roles dictates how much respect they deserve. 



This is just like “Spinal Tap”. We go to eleven. People aren’t wrong just because they don’t belong to my tribe and they’re not right just because they do. 


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “What’s a Moderate?

  1. I would add Fiscal Responsibility. In order to ensure long lasting stability of services, we must be accountable for where we spend, when we borrow, and what we kick down the road. Much needed reforms and changes must still be approached with an eye on sustainability and appropriate timing.

    I would add this thought to number 5 Reason. Just because we have always done something this way, doesn’t mean it is the way to do something. Advances in technology combined with innovative market distruptors can lead to significant gains in efficiency and cost reduction. Think SpaceX vs NASA.

    I would also add this to number 11 Anti-Tribalism. Do you want to be right, or do you want to understand? A simple question that opens the door to expand your circle of thought. It’s your choice if you want to walk through.


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