Two key bits of partisan data have been highlighted this week. First, from the liberally inclined Vox.com: "moderates are largely a statistical myth." Second, from the libertarian-minded folks at Reason, Millennials are "less beholden to two parties dreamed up before the Civil War" who "would support a candidate who is both socially liberal and fiscally conservative." Ergo, they are moderates?
Moderates are dead; long live the moderates. Or, better: The way we talk about politics has way more rough edges than we admit.
Vox's Ezra Klein lifts up a paper from University of California at Berkeley political scientist David Broockman. Broockman's research suggests, in short, that the way we compile poll responses gives the false perception that there are a bunch of people flooding the middle of the political spectrum.
It works sort of like this. Let's say that, like all good citizens, you really love dogs and can't stand cats. If you had to rank the two on a scale from 1 (hate) to 7 (love), you'd give cats a 1 and dogs a 7. If those were the only two questions and someone was looking to evaluate how you feel about pets, they might find the average of those two opinions. So: You are a 4, with moderate feelings about pets -- although that doesn't really capture the strength of your feelings.
As Broockman tells Klein (and as he wrote for The Post's Monkey Cage blog in January), people who are pooled into the big lump at the middle of our political bell curve often have equally extreme views about politics. They just get averaged together into a mushy "moderate" position because their positions don't line up neatly with the definitions of "right" or "left."
That makes sense as a concept. And what Klein wants to do with it is to rip up political opponents who'd like Republicans -- and, more importantly in his eye, Democrats -- to moderate their positions to appeal to a voter pool that Klein now dubs "bulls***." You can see it coming at the outset of his piece. A moderate, in his formulation of how his opponents depict members of the group, "yearns for politicians who get along, who govern reasonably and incrementally, who steer a course between the extremes of the left and the right. The problem with Washington is that her pleas so often go unheard." Klein's straw men love to wear purple.
What does "moderate" mean in politics? Is it another word for independent? Is it a reference to someone who wants the two parties to work together? Is it someone who holds views between those of the two parties? Is it someone who sits at the center of a range of opinions on a particular topic? Well, yes, yes, yes and yes, depending on the context. Also, probably: no, no, no and no.
Broockman conducted an actual survey of peoples' positions on a range of topics. Here's where they ended up, using a 1 to 7 scale (1 being most liberal, 7 being most conservative) and with the height of the bar reflecting the percentage of respondents holding that view. (All of the questions are at the end of the paper.)
People hold a range of opinions on a range of topics, and the popular positions may not line up neatly with established political philosophies. But there are also middle-ground positions on a lot of these topics. In other words, talking about a massive moderate middle doesn't describe the nuance of political opinion very well.
Nor do "Democrat" and "Republican" many times. Political parties arose, in part, to establish a voting shorthand for voters who don't pay a lot of attention to politics, which is most people. There's an even less realistic depiction of an American than the moderate that Klein depicts -- a voter who agrees with his party's political platform in its entirety. People identify with political parties, but that doesn't mean they insistently agree with them. People often vote based on the (D) or (R) printed on a ballot, but are also often happy to vote for a candidate of the other party who says the right thing on an issue that's important to them.
The shorthand of political parties and moderates and so on is often useful for describing the political world, but it is also rife for abuse. What advocacy groups often do is what Reason does in the survey linked above: Find subsets of agreement that they can use to try and shame elected officials into a certain behavior. American politics is a Venn diagram of 300 million circles; Reason and the NRA and SEIU and the League of Conservation Voters figure out ways in which to draw a larger circle around (ideally) 50 percent of that mess, organize the deck a little, so that they can encourage a particular action. Sometimes that larger circle is an accurate reflection of how people feel. Sometimes it isn't.
Everyone is a moderate on something. No one is a moderate on everything. Politics is a tricky balance of negotiating interests and recognizing disinterest. Millennials are Democrats and Republicans and neither, and they hate government and love government, and so are/do all of the rest of us. The key isn't refining the shorthands we use to describe political behavior. It's mostly just recognizing that they are shorthands.