This is a guest column by Dr. Alex Smith.
What does it mean to be a moderate? What do moderates believe and how can they put their values into practice, especially in an age defined by growing economic inequalities, electoral polarisation and political extremism?
I am an Australian-born, British sociologist who has been exploring these questions for over a decade. When I began my study of the problem – and promise – of political moderation in the 21st Century, I had few expectations of where these questions would take me. I was interested in American democracy but the state of Kansas was not on my radar. However, it was when I read Thomas Frank’s ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ that I first learned of the work of the MainStream Coalition. I was inspired. I came to Kansas City in 2008 and visited with the then director, Boo Tyson. I have been coming back every year since, to interview activists, legislators and others who are committed to rebuilding political moderation in Kansas. I have walked with candidates in Republican primaries and enjoyed hundreds of conversations with moderates throughout Kansas.
I am sometimes asked why I came to Kansas, as if studying political moderation in Kansas is a contradiction in terms. It might seem counter-intuitive but it makes perfect sense. Kansas has a long tradition of moderate politics, in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. In recent decades, this tradition has been challenged and ridiculed, as religious fundamentalists and economic libertarians committed to reducing state government have come to dominate Kansas politics. To discern what moderation means, though, it makes sense to go somewhere it is contested, some place it is talked about openly and debated. This is not true of every state.
In my view, it is to the credit of Kansans that MainStream and other like-minded groups exist, to push back against extremism in the state legislature. Moderates have experienced setbacks in recent years but this does not mean that the work they do – the politics they seek to champion – is not important. I would argue that political moderation is, in fact, the most authentic of American political traditions. The importance of moderation was certainly what the Founding Fathers, well versed in the writings of Aristotle, John Locke and the Scottish Enlightenment, had in mind. The virtue of moderation is at the heart of the US constitution, enshrined in the idea of the separation of powers. That is one of the reasons why current attacks on the judiciary are so dangerous. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to protecting government and democracy in America.
It should come as no surprise, then, that political moderates are committed to the constitution and due process of law and politics. This can only be the start, though: the constitution is the foundation of the kind of political community moderates seek to build. There is much work to do, if Kansans are to arrest and check political and religious extremism as well as repair the damage that has been wrought on the state’s finances by reckless fiscal reforms. As the Indiana University political theorist Aurelian Craiutu argues, though, political moderation is a virtue for courageous minds. We all have much to learn from the discipline and work of Kansas moderates and organisations like the MainStream Coalition, which has weathered the ideological storm that has engulfed state politics for over a generation and stood the test of time.
Dr Alex Smith is a sociologist from the University of Warwick in England. He also holds an adjunct position at Kansas University. In the coming months, he will be writing about moderate politics in Kansas for the MainStream Coalition and will be publishing a book on the subject with The University Press of Kansas in 2017, titled ‘Democracy begins at home: political moderation in Red State America.’