News organizations utter the term whenever it makes sense. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) hit the headlines: “moderate”.
Usually, these lawmakers evaluate the cover and earn the nickname of thwarting the party or throwing some kind of obstacle in the way of their leaders’ agenda. Progressive politicians and Democratic voters regularly bristle at the characterization of their party’s more stubborn members.
“To refer to the small handful of conservative Democrats who try to block the President’s agenda as ‘moderates’ seriously harms the English language and unfairly slanders my colleagues who are in fact moderate but who generally understand the challenges of this historic moment, ”said the representative. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) recently said.
But it’s not just the Democrats. Yes, “moderate” Democrats are simply the Democrats who annoy their party the most, regardless of their political prescriptions. But those Republicans called “moderate” are simply the ones who annoy former President Trump, whatever their political ideology. Neither do “moderate” voters seem to share any common characteristics.
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It’s a term loaded with connotations, and politicians and savvy voters have each understood for a long time that it does its rhetorical job well enough to describe itself with it. But in either case, the word itself has become hopelessly spongy and largely devoid of any substantial meaning. In 2021, that says a lot more about how our politicians and voters want to be seen than what they actually believe.
As the two major parties have become increasingly homogeneous in terms of the political positions of their members, “moderate” has become more of a relational term than a policy descriptor.
“It is used by members who need a certain distance from their national party,” Francis Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, told TPM.
For Manchin certainly, showing West Virginia voters that he is not a buffer for the Democratic agenda is his political reality. The state voted for former President Donald Trump with 69% of the vote in 2020. Although it has a Democratic senator, it is only passed by Wyoming for its near total loyalty to the Republican candidate for election. presidential.
Unlike Manchin, Sinema lacks a clear political justification for regularly contradicting his party. Hailing from a purple state that President Joe Biden won in 2020 – and in stark contrast to a state lawmaker much more typical of the battlefield of fellow Arizona Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) – Sinema a always, for some reason, relied on his political well-being to veer very publicly to the right of the party.
Where the two line up is in the messaging: They both want to signal to their home state voters that they are not staunch Democratic infantry. But one clue to the substantial void of the “moderate” descriptor they share is how little they otherwise have in common.
Over the past several months, the two have used the veto power that every Democratic senator has in the equally divided chamber ruthlessly, and often – but rarely on the same political issue. Manchin has taken an ax in major climate change programs; Sinema supports them. Sinema prevented the party from collecting more taxes from the very rich; Manchin is all for raising taxes for the rich.
Further evidence of the term’s divorce with any political significance comes from the Republican Party, which was swung heavily to the right under the Trump presidency.
There, the group of “moderates” typically includes lawmakers like Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY). These are people, in short, who are hostile to Trump, their party leader, and much of the undemocratic propaganda he peddles. But ideologically, they are often closely tied to the core beliefs that have long made up the Republican worldview.
“They are labeled as moderate even though many of them occupy a more conservative ideological space than Trump himself,” Alex Theodoris, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told TPM. “Trump is everywhere ideologically; people like Liz Cheney or Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney are not.
Part of the reason the word has come to describe the willingness of lawmakers to oppose their parties rather than their ideology or stance on politics is that there is no moderate voting bloc. coherent that these politicians can represent.
Voters who call themselves moderate have as little in common as politicians who do so. Often they just do see moderate because they hold a cornucopia of political positions torn from both parties. But these political positions are often quite extreme.
“When we conducted an investigation, the most popular position on immigration was to militarize the border, a very extreme conservative position, and the most popular position on marijuana was to legalize it completely nationally – a liberal position. relatively strong, ”Doug Ahler, assistant professor of political science at Florida State University, told TPM.
Political science, Ahler said, hasn’t focused much on the end of every position voters hold in favor of capturing a complete and misleading picture. In his research, Ahler and his co-author David Broockman found that 71.3% of self-proclaimed moderates had at least one extreme political stance. Like moderate politicians, these voters do not fit perfectly into either party. But that doesn’t mean they have much in common, or a general coherent ideological philosophy that a lawmaker might campaign to represent.
So the word “moderate” is not a shorthand for political positions or ideological beliefs or, really, anything. It is simply a signal of how politicians and voters want to be viewed in relation to those around them. And for some politicians, it does the extra work of portraying them as independent from a party that some of their base may be suspicious of.
“It seems a little responsible,” said Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University. “If you are moderate, you are not extreme. It is an attractive label that does not make sense in its content.