Why I Am a Radical Moderate
In today’s polarized climate, being moderate has become a radical position
Republished From Areo Magazine
I am a radical moderate.
When I say I’m a moderate, I don’t mean that I’m a wobbly centrist who can’t make up his mind. Rather, I mean something akin to the Buddhists’ middle way or Aristotle’s golden mean. And when I call myself a radical, I don’t mean I’m an extremist. Rather, I believe that, in today’s polarized climate, being moderate has become a radical position. And I believe that what is needed right now is a radically full embrace of democracy. When a populist authoritarian mob can rise from within the body politic—as it did on 6 January 2021—and when bad-faith actors are tweaking algorithms and deploying bots to exploit and widen the political divide in the US, the stakes are high.
According to Gallup, in July 2020, more people identified as moderate (36%) than as conservative (34%) or liberal (26%). In 2018, More in Common’s “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” study found that those who hold extreme views—on the right and left combined—comprise about 15% of the population. If one adds people who call themselves “devoted conservatives,” that brings the proportion to 33%. The remaining 67% identified as traditional liberals, passive liberals, politically disengaged or moderate.
The study also found that the media bears a large share of the responsibility for our current polarized landscape: “Media executives have realized that they can drive clicks, likes, and views, and make money for themselves and their shareholders, by providing people with the most strident opinions. This means that the most extreme voices—no matter how outlandish—often get the most airtime.” All this tells me that some of us need to start speaking out for the exhausted, silent majority in the middle.
Another reason why radical moderation is called for right now is that, in President Joe Biden’s address before a joint session of Congress on 28 April 2021, he used the rhetoric of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, based on the assumption that the US is a racist nation. When Senator Tim Scott gave the Republican response to Biden’s address, he decried the implication that the racism in America’s past means that it remains racist today—and will always be racist. After Scott’s response, both Biden and Vice President Harris acknowledged that America is not an inherently racist country. There is no evidence to suggest that more than a very small proportion of Americans are racists.
By announcing my stance as a radical moderate, I’m exercising agency, independence, and self-determination.
There are undoubtedly systemic and structural issues of concern. Racial disparities exist across social and economic categories and there is an urgent need for police reform. At the same time, when activists claim that America is a racist country, and advocate policies based on false, divisive assumptions that reify and essentialize race, it strengthens the objectives of those who prefer chaos and polarization. The more we engage in rhetorical warfare over identity categories, the more readily authoritarian and autocratic models of governance can prevail. In addition, focusing on racial identity to the exclusion of other issues—such as culture, gender, and class—can lead us to neglect those factors and only serves to support a media ecosystem that feeds on social divisiveness.
John Wood Jr., the national ambassador of Braver Angels, a bipartisan organisation that facilitates political and cross-cultural dialogue in the US, describes the complexity of the discourse on race and racism, using Biden’s and Scott’s public remarks as a reference point:
Senator Tim Scott is a black from the American South who has experienced racism. Yet he does not view racism as deeply defining of today’s America. President Biden is a white man who made common cause with politicians who once were ardent segregationists. Yet today President Biden takes up the core cause of Black Lives Matter from the most powerful office in the world.
I do not make these points to suggest that either man is disingenuous because of these histories. To the contrary, it is to show how complicated life, people and the circumstances through which we grow to understand race and race relations in American life really are.
By announcing my stance as a radical moderate, I’m exercising agency, independence, and self-determination. Thus, in a sense, I’m aligning myself with the 44% of Americans who identify as political independents (according to Gallup polling from the first quarter of 2021). And yet this does not make me independent of political engagement. It puts me near the centre of an interdependent US political spectrum.
My opinions about Joe Biden and Tim Scott are an example of my moderate stance. I both acknowledge the existence of racial disparities and critique hyper-racialization. As a result, anyone who supports either man’s views on racism will probably be dissatisfied with my position. Hyper-polarization is now the norm, and it creates pressure for people to come down squarely on one side or the other. A more nuanced position works against this and helps support free speech, democratic dialogue and civil disagreement: pluralistic values fundamental to our multiracial democratic experiment.
Many people think and behave primarily as members of a particular ideological tribe—and expect others to do the same. I feel differently. I believe it’s important to respect people’s right to make up their own minds. I believe that I have a right to agree or disagree with particular views from either side, based on my own principles and perspectives, rather than on loyalty to a party plank.
I am center-left on some issues and center-right on others. I share the left’s vision that the promises and rights of the American social contract can be expanded to everyone. And, along with those on the right, I value both individual liberty and personal responsibility, and support a free enterprise system that thrives on entrepreneurship.
I also identify as a post-progressive. As Steve McIntosh explains, post-progressivism isn’t anti-progressive. Rather, “it seeks to demonstrate what comes after progressivism, both culturally and politically.” The nascent post-progressive project seeks to integrate the core values of those on left, right and center. For McIntosh, post-progressivism also embraces and integrates the positive cultural values of each of the major worldviews: traditionalism, which values religion and loyalty to family and country; modernism, which values scientific and economic advancement; and progressive postmodernism, which values social justice and environmental protection. Of course, each worldview has a shadow side: traditionalism’s ethnocentrism, racism and sexism; modernism’s disregard of religion and myth, of inequality and of environmental degradation; progressivism’s insistent identity politics and disregard of individual liberty and other Enlightenment values.
We live in an environment of extreme polarization, fed by the bifurcation of the mainstream media. The American political arena has become a duopoly of rhetorical warfare. Yet more folks reside in the center—or identify as independents—than one would infer from watching cable television’s coverage of red and blue states. In light of the media’s incessant polemics, it is unsurprising that folks in the middle have taken cover.
In my work as a facilitator of interpersonal conversations across differences, I want to forge a reasonable and civil discussion of democratic civic issues in a way that honours all worldviews—from indigenous and traditional to modern and postmodern. I’ve lived in alignment with each of those codes in turn at various times during my 57 years on the planet.
As a teen in the late 1970s, I began a lifelong love affair with jazz and sought soul freedom in holiness church services, shouting a Pentecostal joyful noise unto the Lord. I went on to higher education to study public policy and music. Then, in the early 1990s, I became involved in syncretic neo-African rituals, invoking ancestors and deities, became a vegan, meditated and studied the Hebrew Kabbalah and the I Ching.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, I became a professional writer and took graduate courses at New York University, learning about postcolonialism, poststructuralism and postmodernism. Critical Race Theory, derived from Critical Legal Studies, was part of the coursework too. In a bookstore in Greenwich Village, I encountered a work that helped me make sense of it all: A Brief History of Everything, by Ken Wilber, who developed Integral theory. These days, my goal is to enable deep democratic conversations through the practice of memetic mediation, and through what cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls dialogos, which for me works by cultivating cultural intelligence.
Structural and systemic change requires political and social action, but, just as crucially, it also requires inner personal work and the skillful ways of relating to others that can develop as a result.
I acknowledge the importance of structural, systemic and institutional bias, but also of personal and family responsibility and of the need to develop marketable skills. These aspects of life can and should help us develop into citizens who contribute to their own families and neighborhoods as well as to larger organizations and civil society—even though we face stresses related to late-stage capitalism, a Wild West internet age and a public education system that can seem moribund. As economist Glenn Loury puts it:
All human development … takes place inside social institutions. It takes place in between persons in the context of human interaction—the family, the school, the peer group … The structure of connections between people in society creates a context in which developmental resources come to be allocated to human beings.
Invoking personal and family responsibility can seem hollow these days, in the face of the opioid crisis, widespread loneliness and depression, and horrific rates of suicide and mass incarceration. It is certainly insufficient either as a social ethic or as an antidote to the oppressive structural conditions under which socially and economically marginalized families must raise children and work—or to the intergenerational trauma that some individuals and groups have experienced. Healing from trauma and grief would allow people to develop their capacities more fully and become stronger. But that takes us beyond the political—it touches upon the journey of the soul.
What is the importance of this soul journey? Psychologist Zak Stein has said that it can lead to a “post-tragic” state of mind—an attitude towards life akin to the tragic optimism that Victor Frankl discusses in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that is well described in the blues idiom work of my late friend Stanley Crouch. American cultural theorist Albert Murray once described the blues idiom attitude as one of “affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and above all, with elegance.”
Structural and systemic change requires political and social action, but, just as crucially, it also requires inner personal work and the skillful ways of relating to others that can develop as a result. Indeed, in these perilous times, if political work is not accompanied by inner personal work, it becomes sound and fury, signifying nothing.
To address the existential challenges of our time, we need to engage in conversation across differences, to see that others also experience the pain of loss and the blues of life. Whatever our political leanings, we need to relate to others with respect and deep empathy, grounded in shared cultural citizenship and civic leadership.
If we moderates and independents collaborate, increase our numbers and raise our voices against extremism, we can move society in the direction of our values and help save our democracy—before it’s too late.