Take, for instance, the term "moderate." This is a word the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme." Yet, it is applied specifically to politicians pundits who, measured against public opinion, are the opposite, like Joe Lieberman (De Facto GOP Nominee-CT), John McCain (R-AZ) and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Think about their major positions: Lieberman likens his opponents terrorist sympathizers, calls them "extremists" on national television, and shills for a war that polls show 60 percent of Americans oppose. McCain actually wants to send more troops to Iraq - again a position only a small minority of Americans supports. Brooks calls for an end to American democracy, saying "voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics." Yet, these folks are routinely referred to by the media and political Establishment as leading "moderates," that is, leading voices for positions that are supposedly "within reasonable limits" and are "not excessive or extreme" in relation to the rest of the country's positions.
Yet, despite all of this, many progressive writers continue to cede these terms to their opponents. My friend Ezra Klein, for instance, laments that he "started out a moderate" but implies he no longer is one. The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum laments that the media should be asking "why so many mild-mannered moderate liberals have become so radicalized" - that is why so many "moderates" are supposedly "not moderate" anymore. And various progressive columnists and writers still refer to people like Lieberman, McCain, and the Democratic Leadership Council as "moderate" or "centrist" irrespective of their major economic and national security positions that are exactly the opposite.
The problem with progressives accepting these terms in this way goes beyond inaccuracy. Progressives who say they aren't "moderate" or "centrist" or who claim their opponents are more "moderate" or "centrist" are by definition saying they believe they themselves to be "extreme" or "more extreme." Just look at the anytonyms of the word "moderate": they are "extreme," "outrageous," and "unreasonable." Similarly, the antonym of the word "center" is "extreme" or "periphery." Thus, when we define our political opponents as more "moderate" or more "centrist" - we are being complicit in inaccurately defining ourselves and the vast majority of Americans as "extreme."
Here's are some examples of what I mean, using the actual public opinion data and the actual dictionary definition of various terms:
- "Moderates" are not those lawmakers who consistently oppose the concept of a government-sponsored, single-payer health care system, and instead push for "incremental" changes that appease the HMO industry. Those are called "extremists" when you look at the polling that consistently shows that most Americans want a government-sponsored universal health care even if it means tax increases (and that includes half of the Republican base).
- You are not a "center-left" pundit if, like billionaire Tom Friedman, you aggressively shill for corporate-written trade deals that include no workplace, wage, environmental or human rights standards. According to the actual public opinion data, you are, in fact, outside the "mainstream" of all public opinion, and totally marginalized from progressives. That is, you are, by dictionary definition, well outside "the prevalent attitudes and values of society."
Linguist George Lakoff often reminds people that the terms we use ourselves are often just as self-defining as the terms used against us. Reporters who label positions well outside the mainstream as "centrist" are marginalizing the majority of the public who actually are in the real center. Progressive writers who call others "moderate" or more "moderate" are destructively defining themselves and the broader progressive movement as "extreme" or "more extreme" than their opponents. Worse, they are doing this even as the concrete, verifiable facts show that it is us who are the moderates and our opponents who are truly extreme.
It's time to stop reading the right-wingers' script for them. We, the real moderate centrists who live in the reality-based world, have a compelling, factual story to tell about the real extremists in both parties who fraudulently cloak themselves in Washington's Orwellian doublespeak. But this story will only be told if we have the guts and discipline to change our language and make it reflect reality, rather than a fiction that misleads the country and marginalizes the silent majority.