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The Airy Ambivalence of the Moderate Politician

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

In the summer of 2015, Josh Barro wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “Donald Trump, Moderate Republican.” The real estate magnate was “anything but ideologically rigid,” Barro wrote, “and he certainly does not equate deal making with surrender.” On such issues as taxation and immigration, Trump was “flexible,” vacillating between left and right. The premise seems laughable now, but Barro had a point. Trump is ideologically flexible—he has slashed taxes on the wealthy, but he has also deported fewer people in his first three years than his rival Barack Obama did. So why does it seem so absurd to call Trump a moderate?

It’s not because his politics are so far out of the mainstream—if they were, he wouldn’t be president. Rather, his personality clashes with what moderates stand for—the emotional register they operate on. This is an unwritten yet fundamental rule of American politics: Moderation is not a political persuasion but a mood.

Of all the candidates in the Democratic primary, Joe Biden has best channeled the mood of moderation. He has no signature policy positions. Instead, he campaigns mostly on the force of his personality—as a grieving father, an avatar of American “decency,” the straight-shooting middle-class uncle from Scranton. Many of the other moderates in the race did the same. Though Bernie Sanders was often criticized for having a “cult of personality,” it was Pete Buttigieg who loved to tell voters how he would “look you in the eye” and give it to you straight—never mind what exactly he’d be giving you. Amy Klobuchar campaigned on Midwestern niceness: disagreeing “without being disagreeable,” as she put it in her memoir, The Senator Next Door. In endorsing her, the San Francisco Chronicle praised her “wickedly quick sense of humor that can make her point effectively and with civility”; it said next to nothing about her policy goals.

These politicians avoid discussing politics for a reason. As political scientist Lee Drutman has shown, some 40 percent of the electorate consider themselves moderates—though they have wildly divergent political preferences. There is no coherent political platform that appeals to everyone in this motley group, so candidates instead rely on their amenable personalities to gin up something approaching enthusiasm.

Despite their temperamental orientation toward civility, moderates thrive in moments of tumult, drawing oxygen from others who challenge an entrenched system. During the civil rights era, white moderates, Martin Luther King said, opposed an unjust system, but could not countenance dismantling it, afraid of being left behind in a society they no longer recognized. Today, moderates evince the same nervous melancholy; when Sanders surged earlier this year, reporters characterized them as “anxious” and “depressed.”

Biden’s ascendancy has restored these fretful voters to their familiar posture of optimism and vague conviction. “Our best days still lie ahead,” cheers a Biden ad. It’s a campaign built around decency, integrity, “soul.” This is moderation in a nutshell: a personality cult for the terminally ambivalent.