The Uphill Road For Moderates

Occasionally, a reader will suggest I run for something, usually governor. That happened again last week. I gently suggest they find a quiet place or maybe a twelve step program so that they can reintroduce themselves to reality.

I’m not running for anything. But when somebody suggests that, the old pol in me starts twitching and I can’t help but begin thinking about how a guy would go about that. It’s a useful exercise because it points up one of the weird and unfortunate things about our current politics: there is no infrastructure for moderates.

To illustrate my point, follow me through the process that a candidate would pursue as he tested the waters. Since I’m a Democrat we’ll start there.

The first place you’d go is the party structure itself. You’d show up at as many county and congressional level party meetings as you could. The problem here is that most of these organizations are dominated by true believers who are very ideological. (Tom Martinson in Dane County is an exception to that rule, but we need more like him.) A candidate who doesn’t pass every litmus test will not do well. Only candidates who take uncompromising liberal positions are welcome.

Next you’d probably move on to union halls. I’m pro-union, but I’ve written more than once that Democrats don’t connect well with most workers because they see them exclusively as union members. Actually, only one out of ten American workers belongs to a union, so when we talk about labor we need to think about people who don’t carry a union card. This may not go over well.

Let’s visit some teachers unions then. I like teachers. I think they’re doing the Lord’s work and they should be well-compensated for it. But I’m also okay with some form of vouchers to give poor families options and to provide some competition to public schools. I’d get an “F.”

Okay, well then, what about organizations that represent women? I’m pro-choice, but not without reservations. I think abortion should be safe, legal and rare. “Rare” gets me booted from consideration.

Next, LGBT+ groups. I’m against discrimination and bullying. I think everybody should be able to express their gender identity any way they want to. But I also think that parents should be informed when their kid is undergoing a gender identity change in school, such as requesting that they be referred to by a different name or pronouns. So much for that.

Let’s move on to Black churches. My moderate views on social issues might go over pretty well among socially conservative Black church goers, but I’m skeptical of affirmative action on the merits and I think the politics are absolutely disastrous for Democrats. Alright then.

Well, so, how about environmentalists? I should do well here as I had a long career in the movement. But I don’t think we should talk in apocalyptic terms about climate change because it just drives too many people away. Instead, I think we should emphasize home weatherization and energy conservation without mentioning the “c” word. I also think enviros come off as too serious and preachy and they should lighten up and talk more about their successes. Clearly, I am not sufficiently committed to the cause.

My efforts to gain traction among Democratic interest groups somewhat lagging, maybe I’d give up and try the other side of the street. Let me test the Republican waters.

Once again I’d start with the party infrastructure, I hate Donald Trump. I think he’s stupid, corrupt, sick and basically a fascist. About 70% of Republicans think he’s just great. Not winning many friends here.

How about the big evangelical churches then? Did I mention I was pro-choice? They might like “rare” but they would prefer “never.” And my acceptance of LGBT+ is not a plus.

Then there’s the NRA. I never met a gun control law I didn’t like, so I don’t have a shot with them.

Chambers of Commerce? Well, now this is interesting. Business likes stability and predictability. Most business people I know are no fans of Trump or right-wing populism. But they do like tax cuts and, anyway, they like to back winners. How am I doing with those other interest groups? Well, ya know…

So, you see my point. Even though moderate positions pretty well reflect where most of the American people are at on the issues, there is no set of interest groups in place to support them. That’s because interest groups, by their nature, are single-issue organizations dominated by leaders who are focussed, passionate and extreme on that issue. If a candidate expresses any deviation from the party line or nuance in his answer, he’s done.

And the foot soldiers, the people who knock on doors, make phone calls, put up yard signs, hold fundraisers and the like come, for the most part, out of those interest groups. They are motivated by their passion for their issue. People of a moderate temperament tend not to have the passion that makes people overcome the natural reluctance to knock on a stranger’s door or cold call a voter.

Now, you might point out that Tony Evers and Joe Biden are pretty moderate Democrats. They are, but even they would not support vouchers, say that abortion should be rare, question affirmative action, suggest we strategically downplay climate change or come out in favor of parental rights over the wishes of their transgender children. Evers and Biden are moderate in terms of where the Democratic Party has gone in recent years, but they are not all that moderate in relation to the electorate as a whole.

So, there’s the moderate dilemma for you. We represent the bulk of American voters, but we don’t have the political infrastructure to win elections. Each of the positions I’ve outlined above has the support of a majority or plurality of the American people according to recent polls. About two-thirds of Americans are supportive of abortion rights, but with restrictions. About three-quarters of us are for modest forms of gun control, like universal background checks and red flag laws and, by the same margin, we oppose affirmative action. Well over half of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump. But neither major party holds all of those views. In fact, each of them presents a third rail for candidates in one party or the other.

And so voters get the choice between two extreme parties and, rather than voting for one they actually like, they just vote against the party that they dislike even more. Turns out this is even more of a potential problem for Democrats than Republicans. That’s because about half of Democrats consider themselves to be conservative or moderate while only a quarter of Republicans would call themselves moderate or liberal. So, any potential centrist third party candidate is likely to pull more votes from Democrats.

I actually have an idea about how to get beyond this and I’ll write about that next week after the election. Have a good weekend.

And on a related matter… the New York Times reported on Friday that it could get even worse for Democrats. It has flown under the radar, but it now looks entirely possible that Republicans could achieve veto-proof majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. They only have to pick up one seat in the Senate – which is all but assured – and they need five seats in the Assembly. The Times reports that two of those could be picked up in what was once Democratic territory around Superior, Ashland and Bayfield. If this happens then it doesn’t matter much who wins the governor’s race. 


Published by dave cieslewicz

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

5 thoughts on “The Uphill Road For Moderates

  1. I think the best way to get moderate policies is to never be locked in to one party. Too many people blindly vote for the same party regardless of the stupid things they’re doing. And the party leaders know this.


  2. The premise of this post is spot on regarding why centrists and leaders/candidates reflecting much of the population can’t get nominated, secure support or opt out from public service.

    If Governor Evers and maybe even Mandela Barnes are defeated, the themes in this post show, the need for change and a new order in the state party.

    Seeing the need and obvious weaknesses; then expecting those in charge to give up their role, identify and perceived influence in an echo chamber, even in defeat is wishful thinking.

    I can’t believe I am saying this – it may be time for a third party. The current Great State of Wisconsin Democratic party unless it squeaks out a win or two, certainly isn’t going to get it done with what it’s got now.

    The question is if they don’t win, do they keep doing what they have been doing and find themselves swept away from any value to the citizens they claim to represent.

    Next up after this election – State Supreme Court. Following the same strategy this fall?


  3. I’m sympathetic to most of what was written, but the so-called moderate position on climate change is off-base. It is framed above as completely binary: talk in apocalyptic terms or don’t talk about it at all. What this ignores is the vast middle. What Dave advocates — shut up about climate change – is the extreme radical position. The solution that is advocated here — weatherize and conserve — is wholly deficient in meeting the challenge. Let me see if I can sketch out a moderate position.

    First, don’t lie to people. Not talking about climate change is a form of lying. Second, don’t speak in apocalyptic terms. But NOT, as Dave says, because it scares people. Don’t speak that way because it’s not true. Climate change is not an existential problem as nuclear war or an asteroid strike are. There is no runaway greenhouse effect. Our species is not going to disappear. But climate change is a real problem with severe consequences.

    Politicians need to stop using the word ‘existential’. No reputable climate scientist uses that term. Don’t shame people into changing their lifestyle. Don’t tell people they have to lower their standard of living — because as an incredibly intelligent and creative species we can find new sources of energy. How we react to the problem is our choice. Eat vegan if you want; don’t fly on planes if that makes you feel like you’re doing something. But the reality is that individual action doesn’t amount to much.

    What does make a difference? Transitioning off fossil fuels. Don’t keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because CO2, for one, stays up there for close to a million years.

    Here’s the good news. If you go back to around 2010 or so, CO2 emission went up roughly 3%/ year for the previous 40 years or so. Extrapolating forward it looked like ‘business as usual’ scenarios estimated that the global mean temperature would increase to something in the range of 4-6 C above preindustrial. That future would have been extremely bleak and perhaps worthy of the phrase apocalyptic. However, since 2010 or so global CO2 emission has pretty much plateaued out. (It still rattles around a bit, but it’s not increasing at the rate it did 10 years ago.) Now we’re looking at a future more in the range of 2-3 C above pre-industrial.

    More good news. We are now in the midst of a global energy revolution to replace fossil fuels. In the last decade or so the cost of wind, solar and batteries has dropped in the range of 60-90%. And yeah, we know the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Enormous progress is also being made in baseload capacity, whether advanced forms of storage, advanced geothermal, hydrogen fuels, small modular nuclear reactors and hopefully, the holy grail, nuclear fusion by the second half of this century.

    The bad news. It’s not enough. 2-3 degrees of warming will still lead to a hot, dry and stormy planet. We’re going to blow by 1.5 C of warming by the 2030s. Coastal cities are going to be increasingly underwater. 80% of the US right now is in a drought. The Colorado River is drying up. Lakes Mead and Powell are at dangerously low capacity. Food supplies are threatened. I could go on, but I won’t.

    The important thing is don’t despair. Things can get better if we want them to. What makes a difference? Legislation and innovation. Why are acid rain and the ozone problem no longer in the news? Because a strong environmental movement and legislation fixed the problem. Advocate for legislation instead of gluing your head to a Vermeer. Support innovation in private enterprise. The choice of what the future is for us, our kids and our grandchildren is up to us.

    That’s the moderate position.


  4. I’m actually very liberal but just not a true believer. I distrust ideologues and fanatics of all stripes. To quote Princess Bride, “Life is pain. Anyone who tries to tell you anything else is tying to sell you something.”


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