In 1787, 81-year old Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American on earth. Admired for his expertise in both natural and political science, he enjoyed the intellectual status to tell others how best to govern. Franklin harbored many concerns about the proposed Constitution and had argued vigorously for provisions that did not make the final draft. Yet, in the final hours of the Constitutional Convention’s debate he addressed the delegates seeking their support for the document:
Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects…
On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and…put his name to this instrument.
Franklin’s timely display of moderation and profound humility persuaded others to compromise enough to create this country. Yet today, the very qualities that gave us such strength at our founding have been maligned by extreme positions, leading to political paralysis and a dismal failure to solve the pressing problems of our time.
The insidious allegation that has crept into America’s political ego is that moderates lack principles. Moderates are unwilling to take decisive stands and are, therefore, untrustworthy members of a tribe or a movement or a political party. They seek only to split the difference between the positions taken by their noble opponents. Their support for compromise results in mediocre solutions, which are at variance with greatness. Or so the argument goes.
These claims are not only false, but dangerous and is time for moderates to say so.
Being moderate is not a political description; it is how one understands the motivations of others and how one solves problems. A moderate is a realist, accepting how people are, not how we would like them to be. A moderate is open to listening to the truths of others. It is a personality trait, not a political ideology. Hence, describing someone as a moderate Republican or Democrat speaks more as to how that person interacts with others and processes information than what they believe. And there may be a lot of us. Forty-one percent of voters described themselves as “moderate” in exit polls during the 2012 presidential election.
Moderates know the history of our country as a successful accommodation of competing views and respect that tradition of conflict. They seek understanding, balance and proportion. They are skeptical, although not necessarily dismissive, of extreme positions. They understand it takes all kinds of perspectives to create policies in a turbulent world.
At the core of a moderate’s moral code is a profound sense of humility. Their loyalty, rather than pledged unwaveringly to political party, is channeled into sustaining our democracy.
Humility is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. It requires the courage to compromise when appropriate. A humble person recognizes the sovereignty of another to think differently and the value of that different thought. “A stand for compromise is not the stuff of heroism, virtue or moral certainty,” historian Barbara Oberg has written, “but it is the essence of the democratic process.”
Humility should not be confused with weakness or absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually quite clear; they just don’t blind one to believe in their own perfect knowledge. There are times a moderate stands purely on principle; it is just not all the time. In short, moderates want to change the world but realize they cannot do it unilaterally.
The United States enjoys a legacy of public humility reaching back to President Washington and before. Time and time again, American leaders have recognized that to solve the toughest problems they needed to reach out to the other side and to moderate their positions to achieve a lasting result. This is the essence of democracy. Our rich heritage of public humility has created the safe spaces for the Republic to flourish.
Franklin’s comments on the Constitution provide an example. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address struck the same accommodating chord by not celebrating the bloody victory over the Confederacy as all expected, but asking rather for understanding and kindness. Any modern leader would detail the victory, implicitly take credit and thank the Maker for the blessings bestowed upon the winning side. Instead, Lincoln noted both the common humanity and the moral failure of both sides,
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
He closed with no expression of that moral superiority which is so evident in current political discourse,
With malice toward none, with charity toward all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln spoke with empathy and humility and with a sacred purpose to unify. Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham would approve,
The capacity not to betray anyone’s fundamental principles, but to understand that we live in an imperfect and fallen world, is a mark of a great leader. 
Humility is the key that opens the door to purposeful dialogue. But we have lost dialogue to debate. We are so certain in our opinions that we do not listen anymore. We rush in to tell our truths about the way things are and must be, not allowing that there might be other truths and possibilities. We talk over each other, with not even a gap for politeness, much less for silence and consideration and that “doubting of your own infallibility.” As MIT professor William Isaacs quipped, “People do not listen. They reload.”
Moderates, on the other hand, value humility over party and even over ideology because they seek first to solve problems. “The greatness of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “lies in her ability to repair her faults.” In the face of crisis we have historically banded together, compromised and overcome. Americans fix what is broken.
But today the incessant bickering has led mostly to paralysis. While political and ideological conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not. This failure is disgraceful: significant policy challenges such as immigration and failing public infrastructure remain unsolved. Too many leaders would rather be right than competent. Instead, we need those who practice moral humility and are committed to repairing our faults.
This is not about short-term wins and never should be. This is about governing a diverse nation over the long-term; about meeting the test of whether a free people are truly capable of governing themselves. The moderate’s natural tendency to acknowledge the sovereignty of another to think differently is the skill set least evident and most needed today.
Two truths underlie how moderates understand the world:
- People are different and issues are complex.
- People are different; wired differently, raised differently, with different moral foundations. We are separated by great personal and public divides; race, education, culture, religion, geography, age, gender, wealth and poverty, liberalism and conservatism. We hold our personal and sacred values dearly.
When a society is both free and diverse it can be hard to find enough common ground to meet common challenges. A community of people with different backgrounds, values and personal styles must somehow temper at least some of those characteristics in order to make collective decisions. This is the mixed blessing of freedom; we traded authoritarian certainty for self-determination, giving up the notion centuries ago that a king or supreme religious leader or anyone else would make our decisions for us. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
And issues are almost always more complex than we would like them to be. There are more than two sides to each story. What we perceive so clearly proves not to be so. Our field of vision is limited by the lens through which we see. Recognizing complexity means we not succumb to oversimplification. Like a game of pick up sticks, every issue has some relation to another and it is hard to address one without impacting something else. By experience, we know this to be true. Once we know more about a situation, first reactions often prove to be the wrong reactions.
People are different and issues are complex. One might think this is obvious and we should dedicate more time and talent understanding our challenges and what divides us. But not today. Our differences are pronounced and they increasingly sort us out. Whenever possible we live, work, play and worship with people who think and look like us. We read the same books, watch the same television shows, hit the “like” button to the same articles and hover together at social gatherings with people who think and look like us. This mutual re-enforcement cements the notion that we are right and the others are wrong. Our positions simplify and harden.
This problem is exacerbated by social media. We’re choosing the news and opinions to which we are exposed, intentionally shutting out other crucial information.
Those who dare to take the time to understand the realities facing others, or to consider life’s complexities, are charged with being equivocal or indecisive or lacking principles. Nonsense. People are different and issues are complex.
Failure to understand these truths has brought anger and intolerance. As a result, we’re no longer working together to solve the problems a free people must solve. Americans once rolled up their sleeves; now, we put up our dukes. We are deeply and emotionally polarized.
Polarization is an intense commitment to a person or idea which paints the rival person or idea as not just wrong, but corrupt or immoral; when one way of thinking is assumed to be morally superior and entirely correct and the other side entirely wrong.
How bad has it become? About a quarter of all Democrats and over a third of all Republicans view the other Party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” More surprisingly, 50% of Republican parents today would be upset if their child married a Democrat (that number is about 30% for Democratic parents).
These statistics are staggering. I know many people with whom I fundamentally disagree but have never considered them a threat to the nation’s well-being. And as a parent, the last concern I would have is the party affiliation of my son’s fiancée. But such are our times.
Those who are driven by a fear of people and events they do not understand and who long for certainty and order challenge the moderate, and understandably so. Many can no longer rely upon the institutional anchors that have steadied our ship since the Second World War; the corporate, non-profit or government entities that provided jobs, safety, certainty and order. Fear and anger grow from a justified belief that the game is rigged for a powerful few. There is a real sense of loss out there: loss of security, loss of control, loss of hope.
The moderate is wired to trust, to listen and deliberate; not to lash out or blow up. But the very skills needed to find common ground are not in vogue. While the nation’s chorus of voices is increasingly loud and discordant, the moderate’s harmonies are barely heard.
This is an important point. There are many voices in our melting pot of a country. We are liberal and conservative, libertarian and socialist, unattached or disinterested; and mostly we fall at some difficult-to-define location along the continuum. Our distinct moral foundations are, in large part, already set. This essay is intended, in part, to explain how and why moderates focus on resolving problems and to let people know there are others who think the current public discourse is insanely divisive.
In 1990, a diverse group of 30 South African leaders gathered to envision the future of the country. The noted facilitator Peter Senge led these visioning workshops. Although the apartheid government was still in power and Nelson Mandela still in prison, it was clear the great sweep of history was about to change the country. Senge was asked to help the group prepare for the dramatic social and political changes ahead.
On the last day of the workshops, all gathered around the television to hear President de Klerk list the previously banned black organizations that would now be lawful. One of the community organizers, Anne Loetsebe, realized the path to the end of apartheid and to political empowerment had just been cleared. Friends and family members would soon be released from prison.
They also listened to a broadcast of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1964 “I Have a Dream” speech. It had not been allowed to air in South Africa until that day. Many had not heard it.
Before the group broke up to leave, it was customary for each person to say whatever he or she wanted about the day’s events. A tall Afrikaans business executive who has been relatively quiet during the previous sessions stood and looked directly at Anne Loetsebe. With moistening eyes, he quietly stated, “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.”
And then he began to cry.
As I watched this, I saw a huge knot become untied. I don’t know how to describe it except to say it was as if a rope simply became untied and broke apart. I knew intuitively that what had been holding him and so many others prisoners of the past was breaking. They were becoming free…from that moment I never had any doubt that significant and lasting change would occur in South Africa.
Senge’s story is a glimpse into how the moderate’s ethics present in the real world. The thirty participants were collaboratively seeking a better path for the nation. The white businessman clearly and courageously stated the personal assumption he grew up believing. Without such candor he, and perhaps the entire group, could not move forward. The very fact that people of fundamentally different views were in the same room and struggling to accommodate each other’s values reflected humility in their relationships. And their whole purpose in gathering was to envision a different and better future. Each element of this process required the exercise of bravery; the courage to engage, to speak directly, to give up power and to envision something different – even something very uncomfortable.
The Latin root of the word “resolve” is solvare, “to loosen or to untie.” Senge’s keen intuition was that the bonds which had so severely separated the South African community were being untied by the participants.
Anglers refer to a “wind knot,” that mess of fishing line that bunches when a rod is badly cast. Unraveling is tedious work. What you cannot do is pull quickly in frustration. You must take the time to create the space for the knot to untie. That is our task; finding the time and patience and understanding to loosen the knots.
Addressing public policy through a moderate’s lens and recognizing the legitimacy of fear is not the end of the story. Moderation is an approach, an established behavior. It answers the question how. The following is what I believe. I am a Centrist.
Dr. Charles Wheelan, professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Centrist Manifesto, explains the ideal:
Identify the problem. Assess the causes. Evaluate the possible solutions. Recognize the legitimate differences of opinion. And then do something responsible. Our dysfunctional two-party system has lost its ability to do that.
Centrism is not some middle-ground compromise between conservative and liberal. Rather, the Centrist draws from the most compelling ideas from each Party. For example, Centrists respect the historical strength of the Republicans’ fiscal conservatism and appropriate skepticism of ever-enlarging government. The Centrist also admires the Democrats’ natural empathy for the truly disadvantaged and long-standing efforts to protect civil and personal rights. The list of respected accomplishments of both sides is long. But we have reached the point where many of us support positions articulated by both parties and reject certain ideas from both parties. It would be considered political heresy to mix them up. Centrists, Wheelan concludes, will “take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.”
Take the federal debt. I and most people I know are deeply troubled by its size. Unless we make some painfully tough fiscal decisions, and soon, we will leave those who follow us with an unmanageable financial mess. We also respect scientists’ warnings on climate change and its human causes. And because we know and love gay friends and family members, we support gay marriage and are perplexed why it is so troubling to others. We are deeply worried about poverty and the effects of income disparity. Clearly, no current political party is friendly to all these priorities.
In general, Centrists are committed to fiscal responsibility and recognize this will require a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts and reforms to our major entitlement programs. We recognize that history is strewn with the carcasses of failed nations and empires that refused to balance their books. Revisiting the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee’s work would be a reasonable place to start.
Centrists are committed to environmental responsibility in the sense that we truly consider ourselves stewards of the planet. We embrace the value of science and innovation, and the discipline of the scientific method. Climate change is a potential threat to our country and the international order. We must reduce carbon emissions, provide for energy alternatives and work to create a sustainable and safe water supply. This is not fluff; it is not even political. Being thoughtful and long-term about environmental policy is a matter of safety and survival.
Centrists are committed to social tolerance and believe the federal government should not involve itself in private behavior that does not affect the broader public. We will work to heal America’s division on social issues rather than exploiting them for political advantage.
And Centrists will fight for economic opportunity. We believe markets are a powerful tool for promoting prosperity and innovation. The role of government is not to pick winners and losers but to create an environment in which the private sector can thrive; to provide a meaningful safety net; and to ensure that every American has an opportunity to achieve his or her economic potential. We must stop talking about this challenge in vague terms and start implementing programs and practices that create – and demonstrate – economic progress.
This is what Centrists believe. The Centrists are without a home and I believe there are a bunch of us.
My goal has been to define a moderate, explain the Centrist movement and give some comfort to those who may share this angst and aspiration. The goal is not to convince others to join our team. Changing minds is a fool’s errand. Researchers have been telling us that for years. But finding some common ground by changing hearts? There is some hope for that.
How do you change hearts in the current political cage fight? In the same way we always have; we open ourselves to personal collisions with people who are not like us. This is hard and rare. There are too few opportunities to collide with another; to engage in the difficult conversation about one’s experiences and values.
The moderate Centrist believes that not all deep conflicts are ideological. Rather, they may reflect our different opinions as to how complex systems work. I might see the causes of poverty in one way if I were born into poverty; quite another if I were born into wealth. It is easy to devolve into some shorthand description of the Other, without understanding a whit about the Other. It is difficult to place yourself in the Other’s shoes. We are victims of our experiences and the only path forward is to listen carefully enough to come close to understanding another’s reality.
But there are rules for such personal engagement. The parties should treat each other as they did in Peter Senge’s example above. They listen to each other’s truths with empathy, they treat each other as equals and they honestly articulate their assumptions. So often our conflicts result from a lack of human understanding, or some game about who actually has the power in a situation, and/or the fact that the true reason for the conflict is not the one being discussed. I’m convinced that the moderate Centrist can help heal the heart of America.
Is there such a person as an angry moderate Centrist? We do not take to the streets and our ideas do not translate easily to bumper stickers. But I admit I am angry.
I am angry that our political discourse is so superficial and coarse. We are not listening, we are not humble, and we are not resolving anything of importance. That is not being politically correct; it is being mature and mindful of the experiences others have faced.
I am angry because our policy challenges are complex and the answers will require focused thought, time and some significant level of compromise and sacrifice. I am fed up by too many people proposing simple answers to complex questions. That is not being elitist; it is being serious and realistic. I’m also angry at myself for not raising more of a ruckus long ago when I saw the trends so evident today.
Our nation’s knots are tied so tightly now. We are angry with each other and deeply troubled about our future. Some find solace in concepts of isolation and moral certainty.
Unrelenting moral certainty troubles the moderate Centrist. The opposite of moral certainty is not ambivalence. It is toleration, moral humility, intense personal engagement and a fierce loyalty to governing a diverse nation in complex times.
Steven Merritt Seibert is a lawyer and facilitator, a former elected official and state agency director, and a respected leader in the business, government and civic sectors. Seibert is a Floridian. His website is http://seibertlaw.org/.
- David Blankenhorn, “Why Polarization Matters,” The American Interest (Dec. 22, 2015).
- Charles Wheelan, The Centrist Manifesto, (W.W. Norton, 2013), pg. 11.
- Jon Meacham, from lecture in Tallahassee, Florida (Feb. 18, 2016); reported in Tallahassee Democrat (Bill Cotterell, Feb. 20, 2016).
- William Isaacs, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, (Crown Business, 1999).
- Pew Survey (2014).
- David Graham, Atlantic Magazine (September 27, 2012).
- For a discussion of “moral foundations,” see generally Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, (Pantheon Books, 2012).
- This story is related in the Introduction of Senge, Scharmer, Jaworkski, Flowers; Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (Doubleday 2004).
- Senge, from Introduction.
- See generally, Charles Wheelen, The Centrist Manifesto. Virtually all I write in the next few pages is a footnote to Professor Wheelen’s work.
- Id., pg. 12.
- Id., pg. 23.
- See http://www.thecentristproject.org.
- See generally, Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon and Schuster 1999).