At the beginning of the month, many of us were first introduced to the UO College Moderates. Right at the top of the Emerald’s reporting, the club was advertised as a “safe space for civil political discussion.” Predicated on insurmountable polarization going on in the nation, the club was designed for those who are “skeptical [of] extremism.”
Reading about that for the first time, I was wracked with concern. From the outset, it seemed to suggest two things: the first being that moderate positions are the ultimate consequence of discourse, and the second that extremist views do not have a place in the discourse itself.
Before engaging in a critique, I got the chance to talk to UO College Moderates founders Eric Yan and Conall Anderson. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a moderate, and every campus needs a space for deliberation. After interviewing them, some of my concerns eased, but there are a few ideological flaws left lingering in my mind that should be addressed.
To start, though, one must challenge the notion of the moderate position. Moderatism, distinct from other political ideologies, is relativist. One cannot define what moderates “believe” without the presence of other ideologies for them to base themselves around, or, more likely, between.
In our democracy, moderatism is resistant to change, often meaning it upholds the status quo. Talking about climate change, I asked Yan about the Green New Deal. The proposal — which is staunchly rejected by all Republicans and subject to criticism by moderate Democrats as a result — has not found any success at all. Yan said that it is a regular part of a moderate hold on democracy – skeptical of change, we can instead do “little experiments instead of large sweeping changes.” But we haven’t had any since the bill was introduced in 2017. Yan reasons that this is because the moderate form of discourse insists on considering every “reasonable” position. But this means that often unreasonable claims, like climate change not existing, must be taken seriously simply because of the overwhelming numbers of moderate right positions.
Because of this, I question the UO College Moderates’ potential to emulate problem solving in a way that other groups cannot. The original article suggests that the moderate position might be “a better approach to dealing with problems with the pandemic.” I don’t see how a moderate approach, meaning engaging in debate with moderate Republicans who still struggle to wear a mask after a year of denying the pandemic’s existence, can help solve this problem. Moderatism, in the last year, prevented change.
In the club setting, Yan suggested that it is okay to “move on” in disagreement. But our agreement during the interview that real life moderate positions tend to uphold the status quo contradicts the suggestion that the moderate position can lead to extraordinary changes through compromise. As Yan put it, “change happens when moderates change their views” and leave the positions of deadlock and compromise.
The next issue we talked about was the exclusion of extremism. Because moderatism is relative to extreme positions, I asked how the club can reach positions if they share a skepticism for extremism – the meaning of which they defined as ranging from fascism to communism.
Anderson responded that “our club does not discriminate,” meaning that anyone is welcome to join in discussion so long as they come with some sort of proposal or policy as well. This sounds good, of course, but the demographic of the club points to something else. Though I acknowledge that the club is in its early stages and is still getting off the ground, the demographic is almost entirely “center left.”
A weakness emerges that they, too, acknowledge: The club’s moderate discourse, which inherently is relative to more ‘extreme’ views, only consists of moderate positions.
Much is lost in “civil discourse” without certain extreme positions. I talked with the founders about the socialist influence on the welfare state; the criticism of free market capitalism often found in liberal democracies begets the construction of a social safety net. This, for example, led to the suggestion of universal basic income by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang – but he was lambasted for his proposal being too extreme. One year later, the stimulus checks due to COVID-19 relief are a part of regular discourse. Outside of institutions, anarchist proposals of the 40-hour work week were once arrested and murdered because their advocacy was too “extreme.” Now, though, to deny these positions would be ridiculous in its own right. Extreme positions often inform what becomes the most moderate of takes.
As a result, I question the conflation of moderatism with the space for civil discourse. Regardless of correction to suggest “no exclusion,” the College Moderates do characterize “extremists [getting] louder” as a bad thing that needs to be countered. I would agree that extremist white supremacy should be silenced, but the other side of the political spectrum has offered much of what is considered normal today. Placing negative connotations on the broad umbrella of extremism is anything but inclusive.
This campus needs a space for civil discourse. The intentions of the College Moderates are correct; however, I do not think they have achieved their ideal yet. Conflating moderates with a safe space for discussion inherently will exclude certain positions. Not only does this erase the potential for future positions to hold, but it also corrupts the moderate ideology itself.
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