When I was a kid, there was only one kind of child labor encouraged in our home. It was called "working the polls." Politics was our second family business, and a dozen times or more my sister and I spent election day in front of a polling place.

My father gave us all kinds of advice for this job, most of which I forget. But I remember his instructions on How to Spot a Reactionary: "They always come to the polls mad."

This helpful hint had a 99.7 percent accuracy rating. In my town the reactionaries were driven out of the wood-work by their chauffeurs. They stormed the polling booths, marching, and for years I was convinced that they cast their ballots to the accompanying sound of thunder.

But I was impressed, and ever since then I've remained a bit bewildered and awed by the art of the absolutists and by the sheer power of stubborness.

Now, when I try to fit that piece of my childhood into a larger puzzle I wonder why it is that the extremists(of both sides) are so much more tenacious than the moderates. Why is there so much less stubborness in the pursuit of moderation?

Today, the gains of the past years are being nibbled away by the people who simply stayed at the table the longest. It looks as if public-policy issues are being reduced to an endurance contest, and the people my father described as "maddest= are winning.

As Ralph Nader said recently in a Village Voice interview: "The dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries never get worn down. They can be best be described as men with iron bladders in iron cages. . . . They never get tired, they don't resign, they don't quit out of futility."

Neither, of course, does Ralph Nader.

But as you look around, it seems that the more moderate and liberal people are the ones who are retiring from public life, or being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner into the more conservative bage. The civil-rights activists, the pro-choice people the public-interest people, have an attrition rate that is astonishing. Droves of them have taken early retirement from their causes due to poor blood and depression.

I understand why grit runs through the veins of the people at either end of the spectrum. Any rigid commitment is a by-product of True Belief or Sheer Denial, or both.

The most committed people I've known maintain their level of belief - like British colonials in India - by an inability or a refusal to see issues us complex or to entertzin doubt. They don't ponder a different point of view, they more often rage against it, bulldoze it.

But people who are moderate politically are usually moderate psychologically. If they hamor questionable True Belief, it is in the power of reason. They are the interpreters and conciliators of the world, the people who project into the lives and minds of others. Their ability to see the other side of the story leaves them more vulnerable, even more confused.

Moderates tend to define their politics in terms of daily realitiesrather than abstract ideals. So when you pin an extremist against a moderate, you have a debate between an immovable force and a malleable object.

I suppose it takes an extraordinary kind of person to be a devout middle-of-the-roader. An intransigent moderate? It sounds like a contradiction in terms.

It's the True Believers who persist against odds. But it's the others who often decide, as one put it, that "trying to reason with irrational people is in itself irrational," and they quit.

Maybe, though, instead of early retirement or medical leave they should just take a lesson in the immoderate pursuit of moderation. What we need now are some good, solid, dyed-in-the-wool moderates - sensible people with iron bladders.