The media has a problem with moderates. Or rather, it has a problem with the word “moderate.” It is no secret that political commentators like to overuse the term. Journalists may believe they are simply employing a harmless descriptor by characterizing politicians with decidedly conservative views as moderates. However, more than simply being incorrect, this misnomer sanitizes politicians and policies that are deeply harmful and dangerous.
It is true that descriptors of political ideology have different meanings depending on the context. For example, in many parts of the world the word “liberal” is often used to refer to classical liberals––who would be seen as center-right in the United States (BBC, 2010). The word “moderate” is of course no different. A person who is considered a moderate in the Netherlands would likely be considered solidly left-of-center in the United States (New York Times, 2019).
So how should the media define the word moderate? One simple answer is that it describes someone who holds mainstream views on most policy issues in a given country. This definition is what most people take the term to mean, though political commentators frequently ignore this (The Atlantic, 2014).
Due to these inconsistencies, the media inaccurately overrepresents the amount of conservatives in America. This then suggests that many extremely conservative figures are moderates, when they in fact hold views that are far from mainstream.
Consider first some of the GOP politicians whom the news media has denoted as moderates. In recent years, the media has characterized figures such as Rob Portman, Susan Collins and even Mitt Romney as such moderates (NBC News, 2021); (The Hill, 2020); (The Daily Beast, 2017). The problem is that none of them come even close to fitting the description.
Let’s look at the actual opinions of these politicians. Portman and Romney support overturning Roe v. Wade. All three oppose Obamacare. All three have voted to confirm extreme right-wing justices at all levels of the federal judiciary (Time, 2021). All three have opposed any meaningful increase to the national minimum wage (Maine Beacon, 2021); (Springfield News-Sun, 2014); (USA Today, 2021).
Even Collins, whom the media heralds as the consummate moderate Republican, holds many extreme right-wing positions. Though not opposed to Roe v. Wade, she opposes repeal of the Hyde Amendment which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions (Beacon, 2020).
So, who are the real moderates? Let’s ask the American people. 53 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, compared to just 14 percent who support less strict ones (Pew Research Center, 2021). Americans support legal abortions in all or most cases by a 59 to 39 percent margin (Pew Research Center, 2021). 63 percent favor legalizing marijuana and 64 percent support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (Vox, 2019).
On economic issues, the public sentiment is just as progressive. 84 percent of Americans support paid maternity leave, 62 percent a wealth tax and 60 percent increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Strikingly, “Medicare for all”––a proposal which the New York Times describes as largely “confined to the far left of American politics”––garners solid majority support at 54 percent (New York Times, 2019); (CNBC 2019).
In terms of these opinions held by a majority of Americans, there is not a single Republican politician in the country––at least at the national level––who could qualify as a moderate. It is not simply that their views on just a handful of policy questions are out of step with public opinion. Rather, they take unpopular positions on a whole host of issues, both economic and social.
The reality is that the Republican party has moved so far to the right in recent years that it has ceded the entirety of the political center. The Democratic Party now occupies the American political spectrum from left-wing to center-right.
It is crucial that journalists recognize this fact and adjust their reporting accordingly. Mistakenly describing politicians like Mitt Romney as moderates obscures the sheer popularity of many Democratic policies.
The political center does not lie in the space between the most conservative Democrat and most liberal Republican. It lies with the opinions of the American mainstream, which leans left.