How to Think About: Moderation

Independents, moderates--what's the difference?

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"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," said Barry Goldwater in 1964, "And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." But moderation has a very good press these days, usually twinned with independence.

On Monday, for example, U.S. Politics Today reported that in order for Republicans to win big in 2010, they would "have to grab the political center, where most independents and moderates live," and Politics Daily declared that a so-called "generic Republican's" popularity in 2010 would be "higher among independent or moderate voters than a real Republican's would likely be after surviving the cauldron of the primary season." Last Friday, Politico said that fear-based RNC fundraising tactics "won't win the moderates and independents who have become so essential to victory in American elections."

But independence and moderation are not the same thing, and neither is always necessarily a good thing. To start, an "independent" is a political designation: someone who does not self-identify with either major party. The reason might be that this person is too moderate to choose sides, or that he or she is so extremely far left or right that to him or her, "there's not a dime's worth of difference" (as George Wallace used to say) between the parties. Or it could be out of a complete lack of interest in politics.

"Moderate," by contrast, is an ideological label. It places you in the middle of the political spectrum. A moderate can be associated with either party--in fact, both parties earnestly court moderates. Or a moderate might be someone who places himself or herself above the petty squabbling of partisanship.

Evidence indicates that by and large, people who call themselves Independents do not vote in a "moderate" fashion. As political scientist Alan Abramowitz recently pointed out, data from the 2008 National Election Study show that three quarters of self-styled "Independents" are "virtually indistinguishable from regular partisans in their outlook or behavior."

So "independent" does not mean "moderate" at all. In fact it's an ambiguous, often misleading term. When people are given a choice of self-identification between Democrat, Republican, and Independent, almost a third say they are Independent. But when prodded further, most of them reveal that they actually do have a party preference, leaving the number of truly "independent independents" around 10 percent. But why do they initially reply "independent" when in their hearts they really do prefer one party over the other? It may be stylistic. "Independent" implies transcendent, free-thinking, and it is an attractive label because it seems to defy the very idea of being labeled.

Members of the media also fall victim to the independent label's allure, and by obsessing over it they help further muddy its meaning. Journalists often stress the importance of the independent vote, often taking unrefined 30-plus percent self-identification numbers at face value. But data show that only 7 percent of people who voted in 2008 were pure independents, with no partisan leaning. The truly independent 7 percent, while not negligible, is certainly not as "crucial" as it is made out to be. And even that 7 percent may be internally fragmented. While some independents may not identify with either party because they are ideologically moderate, many might be so extreme that neither party can contain them.

Moderates, as they are popularly envisioned, occupy the space between the two major parties on a classic one-dimensional "left-right" ideological continuum. Right off the bat, this framework for thinking about moderation is problematic and oversimplified. Researchers have frequently pointed out that it is much more accurate to think about ideology in two dimensions: economic and social, using what is known as a Nolan Chart, which is like a scatter plot that uses desired economic freedom as one axis, and desired social freedom as the other. This way of thinking accounts for classic liberal and conservative positions, but it also leaves room for people like libertarians, who are left on social issues and right on economics.

Another problem is that the method used to define moderates, the self-identification survey, is dubious at best and possibly--as Matthew Yglesias suggests--totally useless. In the current system, moderates are people who say they are moderates. But who knows why they say this? "Moderate", like "Independent", has stylistic appeal. It has become almost etiquette to be disgusted with the two major parties and with "wingers" on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But in the end, Americans don't vote or respond to polls in a way that is consistent with their claims of moderate disposition.

Maybe this is because people feel like they don't have a choice--that they are suffocated by the two-party tyranny--but it could be because no one really knows what a moderate is. Of all the designations on the ideological spectrum, "moderate" is singularly subjective. "Liberal" and "conservative" at least have the benefit of being commonly associated with the Democratic and Republican Parties; two institutions which have at least tried to convey explicit, "coherent" platforms to the public. The word "moderate" on the other hand, might mean something very different to every person who claims the label.

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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.