During an appearance on The View in June, former second lady Dr Jill Biden argued that as “a moderate,” her husband could sway voters who would have otherwise voted for Donald Trump. “When I was out there on the trail, a lot of people came up to me said, ‘Jill, I’m a Republican, but I’m going to vote for your husband because he’s a moderate,’” she added.
She’s not the only one valorizing the moderate nature of the former Vice President. In an August 13th column in the New York Times, David Brooks argued that the moderate “forces that brought Joe Biden the nomination are far more powerful than a few extremists in Portland and even the leftist illiberals on campus,” adding, “If you look at who actually leads change over the course of American history, it’s not the radicals. At a certain point, radicals give way to the more prudent and moderate wings of their coalitions.”
Others aren’t so sure that political moderatism is a virtue. When it comes to addressing climate change, Eric Levitz of New York Magazine argued that “a major [obstacle] is the tendency of moderate Democrats to mistake their own myopic complacency for heroic prudence”. Political researcher David Adler found that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions, and the most supportive of authoritarianism. Furthermore, Adler found that centrists are the least supportive of free and fair elections as well as civil rights — in the United States, only 25 percent of centrists agree that civil rights are an essential feature of democracy.
This finding dovetails with observations made by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from Birmingham Jail: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Even Arthur Books, a self-avowed moderate, admits to “the failure of the mainstream, moderate, progressive formula for how to create a more equal pluralist America,” adding, “I’m a moderate guy, but the evidence doesn’t support moderation when it comes to racial equity.”
That’s all well and good. But what does the data show?
We represent an unprecedented national study of college student beliefs and attitudes at over 120 schools across the nation (IDEALS). The study, led by Dr Matthew Mayhew at Ohio State University and Dr Alyssa Rockenbach at NC State University in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, surveyed thousands of students across their four years in college, including at the beginning of their first year and the end of their fourth year. In addition to asking students to identify their political orientation, IDEALS also asked them about their commitment to fostering justice, solving global problems, improving others' lives, serving with others to address common issues, and leading efforts to create positive changes in society.
Our findings show that concerns about political moderates — and specifically politically moderate men — are not unfounded. As America battles a global pandemic and an economic collapse and reckons with systemic racism, IDEALS suggests that moderate men may be the least likely to make a positive difference.
When broken down by political leaning, IDEALS found that moderate male students in their senior year were time and again the least likely, or among the least likely, to somewhat or strongly agree with the following statements:
Strikingly, in almost every case, the responses of moderate men are very similar to conservative men and women. Their level of agreement with the statements above is as much as 14 percent lower than moderate women, who are more likely than men to lean Democratic, or liberal men and women.
This IDEALS finding is on par with a recent Gallup study encompassing over 29,000 interviews with American adults, which revealed that moderates and conservatives remain closely aligned in their ideological preferences.
This raises important questions heading into the election: Is a moderate male candidate a bait-and-switch for Democratic voters? Are they actually casting their votes for a conservative?
That moderate men most resemble Republicans has been confirmed, of all places, on dating apps. Brittany Wong of HuffPost writes, “It’s almost become a coastal cliche at this point: If someone lists their political views as ‘moderate’ on a dating app, the thinking goes, go ahead and assume the person is a conservative.” One interviewee noted, “It’s just in my experience, even ‘moderate’ guys tend to have extremely different views on topics that matter to me, like gun control, women’s reproductive rights and immigration.” Sometimes, moderate men who appear to bend liberal turn out to be “faux woke,” according to one interviewee who was initially attracted to someone whose profile featured photos at a women’s march. Eventually “he slowly started to drop his facade,” revealing behaviors inconsistent with his professed political beliefs.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has grown increasingly frustrated with moderate Democrats during her tenure, saying at a recent event, “The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or a center-conservative party.” Her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, recently deleted a tweet comparing two moderate Democrat coalitions — consisting mostly of men — to Southern Democrats who favored segregation and opposed civil rights. During this election cycle, a recurring criticism of Vice President Biden has been his record on school desegregation.
To be sure, Vice President Biden also aligns with more progressive Democrats on key policy issues, prompting Paul Waldman of the Washington Post to assert, “Biden is getting more progressive in substance, yet it has done nothing to change his image as a moderate.”
Nevertheless, Biden’s popularity among Republicans has grown consistently in recent months. A number of prominent former GOP officials, and even some of Trump’s ex-staffers, have voiced their support for Biden, including former Governor John Kasich and former Senator Jeff Flake. Their support, however, seems less driven by the good things they believe Biden will do, and more by the bad things they believe Biden won’t do. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, for example, Kasich remarked that Republicans and Independents may fear that Biden will “turn sharp left and leave them behind,” but assured viewers, “I don't believe that.”
What is clear is that young moderate men need to be engaged in more opportunities to contribute to sorely needed social change. Gallup estimates that as many as 36 percent of men in America identify as moderate. Out of all the political groups in IDEALS, moderate male students contained the highest portion of non-voters (26.5 percent). In 2016, it was determined that nonvoters had as much to do with the election results as those who did vote.
If moderate men are mobilized to take more civic responsibility and contribute more of their energies to working with others for justice and the common good, they could be a formidable force for positive change in this unprecedented moment. Perhaps Vice President Biden — the “empathy candidate” — will provide the example and the spark they need, but only time will tell.
Kevin Singer is a Research Associate for IDEALS and PhD student at North Carolina State University. Twitter: @kevinsinger0
Alyssa Rockenbach is Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University
The authors would like to acknowledge Matthew Mayhew, Co-Principal Investigator of IDEALS, and Laura Dahl for their help running and analyzing the data in this piece
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