After This Week’s Sinema-Manchin Nihilist Standoff, Let Us Finally Retire the Label “Moderate”

“Moderate,” “centrist,” and “pragmatic” all have obvious normative connotations of sensibility and prudence. Our media should stop using them.

Finally this week, mainstream Democratic pundits began revolting against the label “moderate.” 

After “moderates” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin’s petty and bad-faith obstruction of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion ($350 billion annually) reconciliation bill, mainline liberal pundits and self-identified progressives began grumbling that maybe the label “moderate” is ill-equipped to describe those who are seen as contra co-called “liberal or “progressive” agendas. Especially when said liberal agenda is that of the already-thought-to-be-moderate President Biden.  

Clearly “moderate” has a normative connotation, conveying a sense of reasonableness and prudence and isn’t just a value-neutral AP Style-type label.  

Strangely, most seem keen on salvaging the term for what they view as good moderates. “Dick Durbin is a moderate, Joe Biden is a moderate. These two are just on some other unknown agenda,” MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid said

But a more useful way of looking at the last week is that the anodyne, Serious-Sounding label conveying rationality, prudence, and fiscal responsibility isn’t useful at all and should be retired entirely. Instead, reporters and pundits should be specific in their language and seek to convey what exactly is the ideological category being described. 

Some, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have suggested “conservative,”, others “obstructionist.” Both are far more preferable than “moderate” or its close cousin—the also frequently used “centrist.” “Conservative” puts those opposing large and urgent government spending in some type of intelligible political continuum, whereas “obstructionist” conveys what, at this point, is a clear and documented history of Senators Sinema and Manchin using their place as legislative kingmakers to wield undue, capricious power over the remaining Congressional Democrats.

In spite of the torrent of liberal complaints, it is remarkable how uniform our media’s use of “moderates” truly is. Just a few examples over the past few weeks:

  • Politico, 9/20/21 “Democrats dial back drug-pricing plans to win over moderates”

  • New York Times, 9/23/21: “With moderates insisting that the cost of the measure dip below $3.5 trillion...Senator Joe Manchin III, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia...With moderates and liberals feuding over competing priorities”.

  • CNN, 9/25/21 “House panel slated to advance massive bill Saturday as liberals and moderates continue negotiating...”

  • Washington Post, 9/26/21 “Why are moderate Democrats okay with killing Biden’s legislative agenda?”​​

  • NBC News, 9/27/21 “Distrust between progressives and moderates complicates Democratic congressional agenda”

  • MSNBC, 9/28/21 “Joe Biden's Build Back Better Agenda is being held up by moderate Democrats”

  • Wall Street Journal editorial board, 9/29/21: “Moment of Truth for the Moderates” 

  • Reuters, 10/1/21 “Progressives are angry that two Senate moderates - Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema - oppose the size of Biden's "Build Back Better" plan”

The term itself is a clever one, in that on its face it’s a relative concept: “Moderates” are like the “Midway Islands”—only useful insofar as they relate to two other points on a map, but rather than Asia and North America, it’s presumably the far right and far left poles of American politics. But this is a cop out, because, manifestly, “moderate” carries with it specific normative baggage. American readers generally have a good impression of “moderation.” After all, “extremes” are broadly considered bad. “Extremist” is a pejorative, as is for much of the country “liberal.” While “progressive” is increasingly coming into fashion to describe humans who take the science of climate change seriously, it too carries the stench of ideological rigidity not conveyed by the pleasant sounding “moderate.”

But what use is it to be “moderate” in the face of existential spending needs, which were already paired down for the $3.5 trillion bill? Take the most urgent case: that of climate change. If one reads the IPCC report and accepts the undisputed since if we don’t act immediately and dramatically we will face catastrophic worst-case scenarios that existentially threaten the entirety of human society, then there is nothing “moderate” about opposing the necessary “expensive” provisions in the reconciliation bill. It’s not even moderate to support the $3.5 trillion bill which leaves intact key U.S. subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. That’s what makes the “progressive demands” vs. “moderate worries” framing so frustrating: Just as a matter of objective fact, the so-called “progressive bill” is itself far too conservative. 

The whole rhetorical scam relies on a category error. If one defines science-serious positions on climate or objection to 12 million children living in poverty as “extreme” then, yes, as a purely technical matter, it may be true that Sinema and Manchin are moderate. But what moral utility does this euphemism serve? How will history look upon those who stood by and did nothing as the world heated up, while feigning concern about deficits, cost cutting, means testing, and inflation?

We can look at past examples of how this language betrayed us. An examination of Civil War-era newspaper reporting and editorials routinely refer to “moderate pro-slavery” forces:

And the corollary “anti-slavery extremists” 

During the 1930s, when U.S. media was waffling on the looming threat of Nazi Germany, we often heard about the promise of “moderate nazis”:

Certainly there were, at least nominally, Nazis relatively “moderate” in relation to Adolf Hitler. But looking back it’s clear that calling them “moderate” to soften their image and make them seem sensible by comparison reads as morally repugnant. Just as it seems bizarre and cruel to refer to “pro-slavery moderates” or those calling for the wholesale abolition of slavery—even through violence if necessary—as “extremists.” Relative concepts of “moderation” and “extremism” carry normative connotations, and it’s strange for editors to keep acting otherwise. 

Important caveat in case it isn’t obvious: This is not to morally equate Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin with pro-slavery voters or Nazis. The point is to show that using relative proximity to “extreme” poles is not a morally or intellectually useful way to convey anything to readers, much less essential ideological content. “Moderation” in the face of a government already institutionally indifferent to the existential threats of climate change and rising inequality isn’t “moderate” in any meaningful sense: It’s an extremist position of indifference to human suffering and, as such, manifestly reactionary. We should start labeling it that way.

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