On July 27, 2004, then-State Senator Barack Obama took the stage of the Democratic National Convention and laid out a message that would carry him from his seat in the Illinois legislature to the Resolute desk of the Oval Office. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats,” he proclaimed, his words punctuated by an open palm flying to and fro across the podium, “But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” As Obama continued, his words flowing steadily in the measured tones of a preacher, the audience roared and in a cozy living room in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my family fell silent, our attention focused on the youthful legislator from Chicago. “There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
In the words of President Obama, the assertion that what matters most is not what divides us but what brings us together, one can find the heart of the moderate philosophy. Of course, Obama was not the first American to elucidate these principles. In Profiles in Courage, a young Senator John F. Kennedy noted that, “It would be much easier if we could all continue to think in traditional political patterns—of liberalism and conservatism, as Republicans and Democrats, from the viewpoint of North and South…But today this nation cannot tolerate the luxury of such lazy political habits.” Even our first president in his farewell address warned against political brinksmanship and those that would turn the tools of government towards their own end, writing that when factionalism was left unchecked, “sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.” From Washington onwards, the greatest Americans have recognized and been acclaimed for their commitment to the ideals and continued efficacy of the Republic over the interests of any one group. But still, we see a government polluted by those that hijack the vehicles of policy, steering them recklessly towards personal gain.
We see this factionalism circumvent liberty when politicians pledged to uphold democracy slice constituencies into gerrymandered districts, rigged for their party of choice. We see it upend governance when Senators on both sides of the aisle abdicate their duty to appoint judicial officers in pursuit of partisan agendas. When I watched Ted Cruz filibuster for 21 hours against the Affordable Care Act, it was not merely a Democrat’s yearning for universal health services that fueled my discomfort. In fact, I had felt that same unease only months before as I watched Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat, in her own filibuster against abortion restrictions on the floor of her state’s legislature. I supported Davis’ message, eloquently spoken and powerfully delivered, but I recognized its purpose to be fundamentally the same as Senator Cruz’s: a circumvention of democracy by a politician attempting to use a legislative tool to impede rightful governance. After all, only 36-percent of Texans supported abortion as a matter of personal choice in 2013, so was Davis’ political obstructionism really to defend the will of the populace, or was it to further her own national standing?
There is a tendency for some on the far ends of the spectrum to decry moderates as feeble centrists, as though we are pulled to and fro by opposing interests, too paralyzed by our own paradoxes to espouse meaningful policy. This is simply not the case. There are moderates on every side of government with powerful and sometimes unorthodox views. But a moderate recognizes that enacting their preferred policy while violating the letter or spirit of the American system is simply unacceptable. No short-term victory is worth the deterioration of government’s ability to function as an accurate manifestation of popular will; practically, that deterioration can only serve to harm the dominant faction when they are inevitably in the minority and philosophically, it is out of accordance with the ideals of our nation. Perhaps President Obama is feeling these tensions now. Throughout his time in the White House, a man who once expressed misgivings about unilateral executive authority has used the president’s pen to enable everything from environmental regulation to military adventurism, all without the approval of Congress. Now, this expanded executive power will probably be used to undo some of his most significant work; a potent reminder of what follows from an erosion of government’s checks and balances.
So, if moderates tend towards centrism, there are two reasons for it. Of course the first, as previously mentioned, is that we lack a certain zealotry in our views that would have us place them above the maintenance of the democratic apparatus. Some would certainly call that respect for good governance a lack of conviction. But the second is that it’s immensely difficult to be an extremist when you make a sincere attempt to hear both sides. Politicians too often speak of their opposition as foes to be slain in the field of battle, rather than allies to embrace in pursuit of a better nation. The truth is that there are few among us who are true enemies of the people. More often, we are all patriots desiring to improve our home, but differing on the best strategies to do so. I do not mean to diminish those disagreements. Yes, some of the gulfs to be bridged are immense. Yes, some of the loudest voices are the most intensely misguided and misinformed. But, the more that you reach across the aisle, the more you come to understand the complex tapestry of background, tradition and affiliation that forms the intellectual makeup of your fellow citizens. Further, you come to find the points of intersection, the shared values, and the same love for homeland in which even the most disparate views can be based. Until we stop thinking of each other as dark forces marching to seize guns, liberties, birth control, jobs, power plants, Bibles, marriage licenses or futures, and start thinking of each other as allies in the fight for the common good, we will never actualize a young politician’s vision of, “one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
This is why I feel the need to speak up: to bridge the gap between parties in search of a greater nation. To ensure that I never develop internal biases that close me off to the cries of my fellow citizen. To put country first, self second, and party last.
I am a Democrat, a lover of protests, a compulsive Facebook debater but still, I remain a moderate. And if you, like me, believe that a responsible citizen must lend both their voice to the causes they support and their ear to those that they do not, then you just might be a moderate, too.