Moderate is a Relative (and Meaningless) Term


My friend John Gallagher often talks about the Overton window.

I sometimes say that I’m in the middle of the road where the road is supposed to be.

We’re referring to the same thing. The political spectrum is what defines concepts like progressive, conservative and, especially, moderate. But over time it slides along a much wider spectrum: the ideological spectrum. This phenomenon often is likened to the swinging of a pendulum. But it’s not pendulum like in its movement. A movement of the political spectrum in one direction is no guarantee that it will glide past the center of the ideological spectrum, as a pendulum would, on its way to the other side.

In two countries, the United States and Israel, the political spectrum is jammed about as far to the right side of the ideological spectrum as one can imagine, although that’s not to say as far right as possible.

Two recent New York Times pieces illustrate this current state of affairs.

In The Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio Moment, David Brooks tries desperately to paint Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio as moderates. How? By noting all the other “meshugas” on the right, then mentioning many of them by name. IN other words, Brooks is focused, laser-like, on the political spectrum, because that’s where Ryan and Rubio can be depicted as moderate. Would they be “moderate” on the ideological spectrum? No way. Rubio is a tea partier. Check out his 2010 campaign for Senate. Ryan is an Ayn Rand disciple.

But next to right-wing crazies Cruz, Trump, Carson, Huckabee, and Fiorina, Ryan and Rubio appear, well, moderate.

Brooks’ sleight of hand, however, doesn’t hold a candle to that of NY Times reporter Isabel Kershner in 20 Years After Rabin, Israeli Politics Have Shifted. Actually, Kershner’s technique went beyond mere sleight of hand. Her goal, believe it or not, was to paint Bibi Netanyahu and his affiliates, including those in the Jewish Home party, as moderate.

That’s no easy task, given Netanyahu’s recent racial slurs and calls for genocide by Jewish Home Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, who serves as Netanyahu’s Justice Minister.

How does Kershner get there? By defining moderate relatively, of course:

While fiery denunciations and vitriolic rants are all too common on social media in Israel, one Facebook post was particularly chilling given its timing — and its author.

It surfaced as the country was about to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And it was written by Hagai Amir, brother of Yigal Amir, the right-wing extremist serving life in prison for the murder.

After the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, pledged that he would never sign a pardon for the “accursed” assassin, Hagai Amir, who himself was released from prison in 2012 after serving 16 years for his role in planning the killing, responded that the time would come when God “decides that Rivlin will pass from this world, together with the Zionist state, like Sodom, because of the crimes they committed in the name of the law against their own people.”

That’s the groundwork. Kershner uses the co-conspirator and brother of the right-wing assassin who shot Yitzhak Rabin as the marker to define the “right-wing” in Israel. Wow! Once she’s laid that groundwork, the rest is easy:

Yet the Israeli political map has shifted, according to experts. While angry voices from the extreme right, like Mr. Amir’s, are being amplified by social media, they say, the more mainstream Israeli right and left have gravitated over the last two decades toward a less ideological center, approaching some kind of consensus on the Palestinian issue. For many here, the struggle now is more about how to balance Israel’s security needs with democracy, and the battle against incitement versus free speech.

Voila! Define the extreme extremely enough, and pretty much anything, or anyone, can be depicted as moderate. Even Bibi Netanyahu.

The upshot? “Moderate” is practically a meaningless term. If you want to know what someone is really about, dig deeper.