Friday, December 7, 2007

The Rise of the Raging Moderates

Recent conversations I have had with Ron Paul supporters and critics have reminded me all over again why the human species should be reclassified Homo Wannabe-Sapiens.

It isn't that we are all stupid; most people who even know who Ron Paul is are extremely intelligent. That's including both those who consider him the Savior of His Country and those who consider him the latest sign of the Downfall of Civilization.

What makes us Homo Wannabe-Sapiens is how readily we polarize like that. Polarized people can't learn from each other, because they can no longer see any strengths in the other person's argument or any weaknesses in their own. Polarized people don't even seem able to tell the difference between a physical fact and an ideological plank.

This all reminded me of an essay I wrote back in May, when I decided I was a Raging Moderate:

The Rise of the Raging Moderates

The title of one of Jim Hightower's books is There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos. The attitude is generally shared even by those on the opposite extreme from Hightower: to be "moderate" means that you don’t believe in, or stand for, anything very strongly.

There is another definition of "moderate." A moderate is interested in solving a problem, not in winning a debate. A moderate places the common good above what is good for any one political party or any other faction. A moderate cares about people and doesn't give much of a fig for ideology. A moderate can see faults in allies and virtues in opponents. Like anyone else, a moderate thinks he's right, or he'd be thinking something else already; but a moderate is willing to find out he's wrong, and change his mind, if the evidence warrants it. A moderate is able to step out of his own viewpoint long enough to listen to and understand a different one. A moderate knows that honest people can honestly disagree, and still have common goals and interests that they can work on together.

A moderate can get angry. A moderate can get tired of being whipsawed between extremists, and say "a pox on ALL your houses!"

The founders of the American system of government spent a lot of time and great intellectual effort on how to forestall any one group, on whatever extreme, from gaining all power and running away with it. They divided and distributed power among different branches and levels of government so that in any conflicts, neither a majority nor a minority could ride roughshod over everyone else; we would all have to negotiate with the people who disagree with us.

And ever since then, extremists have tried to erode that balance of powers and collect all control in the hands of those who see things their way.

Polarization shuts down brain cells. (See Michael Shermer's article in Scientific American: The Political Brain.) The more people you see as your enemies, the more easily manipulated you are by your "friends." Fortunately, both polarized extremes of American politics seem to be losing their credibility. More and more elections depend on the vote of independents who are not arbitrarily aligned left OR Right – who have to be convinced case by case. Less and less independents are stampeded by being told that one party is the one and only force for Good and one party is the one and only force for Evil. An increasing number of voters demand practical results in domestic tranquility, common defense, and general welfare, instead of bigger and louder political slogans.

Books like Jim Hightower's (and, on the other end, Ann Coulter's diatribes about Godless Liberals) are hot sellers these days. On a promising note, so are these:

  • Edward Brooke, the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction and a Republican elected from the liberal and Democratic state of Massachusetts, has written an autobiography, Bridging the Divide: My Life, covering four decades of American politics.

I would like to paraphrase Senator Danforth in a word to the Moderate Majority:

For a long time, the Radical Right & Radical Left have chanted their messages incessantly, while everyone else disdained the tactic of repetition, repetition, repetition. It is time for a clear statement of what we believe, a statement we repeat relentlessly and a statement that expresses the strength of our convictions:
  • We believe in government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for the common good – not a government of cliques and cronies who sacrifice the welfare of the many to the profit of the few.
  • We believe that all human beings are fallible, including ourselves; therefore no human being has the right of authority over another's conscience. The power of law should only limit the actions of individuals to the extent necessary to preserve the equal rights of all.
  • We believe that government by the people must and will embrace conflicting opinions, even on hot-button issues, even of people with whom we vehemently disagree.
Citizens who support the common good over ideological partisanship should express ourselves clearly and forcefully as the alternative to those who favor divisiveness.
Earlier in this article I referred to brain research showing that partisan political responses involve areas of the brain dealing with emotion, not any of those dealing with cognition. Emotion is, of course, part of all of us. Emotion is not grit in the gears of human intelligence, it is an integral part of reasoning. If you had no emotions, you could make no decisions: you would have no preferences, no priorities, and all choices would be equal. A moderate is as emotional, as passionate about values and principles, as any partisan.

According to other brain research, the thinking of teenagers is dominated by the emotional circuits of the brain, and part of the maturation process is the cerebral circuits becoming increasingly active. The emotional circuits are never completely cut out of the thinking process; in what we call more mature thinking, however, the cerebral circuits play the dominant role.

A moderate is as emotional, as passionate about values and principles, as any partisan. A moderate, however, can still think, and listen, even when passionate.

Perhaps it is time for us all to just grow up.