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Is moderation possible?

Juan Williams, Kathleen Parker and Norm Ornstein aren’t exactly soul mates, politically speaking, but they all have a similar message about moderation in politics.

Speaking at a Thursday Black Mountain Institute forum titled, “Is Moderation Possible in American Politics?” all three political observers identified three things moderates have in common, a trio of virtues sorely lacking in modern politics.

First, moderates try to agree on a common set of facts upon which to base a debate. We can’t agree on the solutions to a problem if we can’t agree on what the problem is, or if there even is one.

Second, moderates keep an open mind, trying to understand why others think the way they do. They’re willing to incorporate good ideas no matter who suggests them. “People can come from strong partisan positions, but once they’re elected to office, they do what’s in the best interest of the country,” Williams said.

Third, moderates are focused on finding solutions to the problems that vex the country, not just blocking the agenda of the other side. They believe the goal of holding public office is to serve the common good. “It is an understanding that we have to get to solutions,” Parker said.

But all three panelists also identified a raft of forces working against moderation in politics.

There’s the gerrymandering of congressional districts that segregate people by ideology, which prevents lawmakers from representing a more diverse swath of the American public.

There’s the self-enforced gerrymandering of liberals and conservatives into information ghettos in which people seek out media that reinforce their views rather than challenge them with new information.

There’s the successful political tactic of employing wedge issues to get elected, which creates an electorate that demands politicians not compromise.

And there’s the modern notion of taking potential solutions off the table before the debate even begins, such as the anti-tax pledge proffered by Americans for Tax Reform.

“In fact, what we’ve done here is redesign the legislative process in a way to reinforce this division,” Williams said.

Gone are the days when Republicans (such as former President Ronald Reagan) and Democrats (such as former House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill) could sit down and hammer out compromises over seemingly intractable issues. Now Republicans and Democrats are less likely than ever to socialize, which makes it easier to dislike, distrust and misunderstand each other.

For some — such as ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich — this isn’t such a bad thing. It was Gingrich who encouraged members to return to their districts on holidays and weekends to mingle with constituents, rather than stay in Washington and mingle with fellow lawmakers.

There’s also the personalization of policy, in which ideas are judged based on who’s advocating them rather than their merits. In 1993, it was Republicans who were enamored of a national mandate for purchasing health insurance, a key feature of a GOP alternative to the health care plan advocated by President Bill Clinton.

“Now it’s become the march toward socialism because of who says it, not what’s being said,” Ornstein said.

Finding consensus in America has never been easy; the drafting of the Constitution itself was the result of an extended political fight. But it ended with a consensus that represented the best ideas, best information and best thinking of the time.

What the founders didn’t do was argue without resolution, until the nascent government was unable to function. That’s an unwelcome modern innovation that’s fundamentally unhealthy — and destructive — for American democracy.

“Voters still want their problems solved,” Ornstein said.

Yes, they do. But are there enough people willing to do the hard work of compromise to make it happen?


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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