What’s the Matter with Moderates?

Why moderates in Washington are a dying breed.

If there’s any group that seems to be on the fringes of today’s politics, it’s moderates.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank took an unprovoked kick at the Blue Dog Coalition, noting how the once-powerful coalition of moderate Democrats has shrunk from 54 to 15 since 2010. His mockingly titled column, “The Blue Dogs’ Pitiful Last Whimper,” argued “there really is no such thing anymore as a moderate Democrat.”

That isn’t true in the electorate at large.

In 2014, 40 percent of voters – the plurality – identified themselves as “moderate” in exit polls, and 53 percent of them voted Democratic. Moderates in fact have consistently been a plurality of the electorate for decades, outnumbering both conservatives and liberals.

So it’s an enduring frustration for moderates in Washington that their political power is so diminished when the share of moderate voters has been so stable. How has this happened?

Without question, moderates in Congress have been the frontline victims of the hyper-partisanship in Washington. Gerrymandering, partisan primaries, and the outsized influence of ideologically driven outside groups help explain why the power of moderates in Congress has waned.

But also underlying the diminution of moderates’ power is the fact that the moderate “cause” has long been a movement among elites to persuade elites – while political power has shifted to the base.

The populism overtaking both parties is driven from the ground up, by masses of angry citizens rebelling against the establishment. Technology, social media and Citizens United have given citizen-led movements like the Tea Party the megaphones and the means to challenge the ruling political elite – and win.

Washington moderates, however, have historically relied on efforts to influence party and establishment leaders to adopt their message and ideas. Even at the height of the Blue Dogs’ power, there was never a grassroots-based Blue Dog citizens’ group – nor was there need of one. The political parties were strong enough and influential enough that persuading the leadership to adopt moderate ideas and perspective was enough to enable change throughout the rank-and-file.

But the moderates’ establishment-focused strategy is far less effective today when the establishment itself is under attack and increasingly fragile. As just one example of the establishment’s weakness, outside groups outspent the political parties by a ratio of nearly two to one in 2014, according to data from OpenSecrets.

Moderates in Washington have two paths to pursue if they want to regain some semblance of their former power. The first is to help rebuild the party and political establishment they’ve historically accused of shutting them out. Rather than separating themselves from the party infrastructure by defining and emphasizing their differences, moderates could lend what strength they have to it. The political parties have never been weaker, but they could likely benefit from moderates’ steadying hand before the parties themselves are completely consumed by the forces pulling them to the extremes.

The second is to invest in recruiting and building a moderate “base” of citizens committed to rational governance and organized enough to be an effective recognized political force.

On its face, this seems exceedingly unlikely. Self-described moderates are a notoriously amorphous and apathetic bunch. Previous attempts to organize grass-roots moderates have taken the form of organizing third parties – something always doomed to fail – or efforts such as “Americans Elect,” the initially splashy but ultimately unsuccessful “national online primary” in 2012.

Moreover, ideologically groups on the left and the right have a commanding advantage in building up a robust – and vocal – infrastructure on the ground, as well as a well-defined roster of select causes and nationally known figures to carry their message. It’s probably too much to hope to catalyze a grass-roots “silent moderate plurality” that will take back power from the extremes.

But moderates may not have a choice. Insider status is weak currency these days, and the only way that moderates can regain their credibility might be to speak for a definable group of citizens with whom they are actively engaged. Cultivating an authentic grass-roots constituency would also forestall charges of over-complicity with that other group of reviled elites: “corporatists” on Wall Street.

Absent this base, moderates risk the same judgment that the New Yorker’s George Packer recently bestowed on the efforts of the moderate-ish “reformocons” to wrest the GOP from the destructive populism of Donald Trump: “The reformocons, for all their creativity and eloquence, don’t grasp the nature of the world in which their cherished middle-class Americans actually live.”

Rather than resist the populist tide – how do you stop a tidal wave? – moderates in Washington might be better served harnessing this collective energy toward more constructive solutions than those offered by the likes of Donald Trump and his ilk.

If moderates want to fulfill their historic role as a bridge between warring ideologies, the first bridges to build are with their own base. Forty percent of Americans are waiting.