Like Lucy's football, the moderate identity is a paradox. The more you pursue it, the less likely you are to reach it. Our current political grammar, which leans heavily on ideas such as moderation and extremism, was crafted by the left. Like Orwell's Newspeak, the meaning of such words is relative and varies unpredictably. That relativism has given us the moderate Taliban and the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Before long, it might give us the moderate Al-Qaeda member.
"Moderate" and "Extremist" are words that are used with an absolute air, as if what they refer to is clear and fixed. Actually, the value of each is relative to the other. If the range of views among Muslims is such that the Taliban are actually somewhere in the middle, then they are indeed moderate. This does not mean that they are decent people or that we can reason with them. It just means that the spectrum of Muslim views is bad enough that, within that spectrum, the Taliban fall in the middle, rather than on the extreme end.
The relativism of moderation means that there is no fixed position that can be taken which will make one moderate. If you are on a ship that is traveling between New York and London, then standing in the middle of the boat will not put you in between the two cities except during the brief period when the ship's travel puts it at that mark. Similarly, adopting "moderate" positions when the culture is moving leftward will not make you a moderate. It will still make you a conservative.
The moderate positions of ten years ago are the conservative positions of today. Not in principle but in practice. When the culture is moving fast enough leftward, then anyone attempting to adopt a moderate position is already trying to conserve something, which makes him a reactionary in the eyes of the left.
To repeatedly attempt to be a moderate is to adopt the positions of the left at a slower rate than the culture as a whole. This is only useful as a cynical political position adopted by someone who believes in nothing at all. It is not good for anything else. That type of moderate is always standing in the middle of the ship as a showy pose, while pretending that the ship isn't moving at all.
The practiced moderate falls afoul of Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox. He is forever trying to reach a point that appears to be closer each time he reaches for it, but that he can never reach. But unlike that paradox, the reason that he can never reach it is because the moderate position is a moving target.
The moderate Republican calculates the position of the left, factors in the position of his party and stakes out a middle position. The Democratic Party moves six steps to the left making it extremist. And our moderate Republican decides that he has found his chance. If he just moves one step to the left, he will seize the moderate position and lay claim to the terra incognita of the middle ground. But when the Democratic Party moved six steps to the left, the new moderate position is actually three steps to the left. All that the moderate Republican has done is watered down his message and made himself slightly more palatable to the middle, but that will change next week when the Democratic Party moves another six steps to the left and the middle will move with it.
Moderation is an unreachable goal as long as the culture is constantly in motion. And it's off limits to Republicans as long as its trajectory is always moving to the left. The moderate position is not defined by the right so long as the right remains in place or moves to the left. The left is moving and so its movement defines what the new moderate position is.
By constantly moving to the left, the left is exerting control of the political space, defining the Overton Window in terms of its own political leanings. Moderates become slow leftists and conservatives become slower leftists. The entire spectrum comes to be defined by the positions of the left. Everyone in the spectrum becomes a leftist of radical, moderate or conservative temperament.
I would like to say that this is something that will one day happen to us if we keep going as we are and that we can still avert through a steady regimen of diet soda and Churchill readings, but in fact it has happened already. On domestic policy, most of what we do is debate over how much to the left we should go or how far away from the left we should move. Social conservatism is being jettisoned to focus entirely on economic conservatism. And when economic conservatism is jettisoned what will be left?
We've spent plenty of time calling Obama a Socialist, but the reality is that, for the last 50 years, we've been debating just how much Socialism we should have. We have repeatedly concluded that the new proposal is too much Socialism, and that the amount of Socialism we have now could be reduced by 10 percent or so to leave over the perfect amount of Socialism. Is it any wonder that the left is winning?
The difference between the left and the right is that the left plays chess while the right plays checkers. The right sacrifices long-term principles to short-term advantages, while the left sacrifices short-term advantages to long term-victories. The left will accept being embarrassed. It embraces the extremism tag. It doesn't care that liberalism has a negative perception or that people consider its views to be too radical. Those same views that people consider too radical will be mainstream in a decade or two.
The left does not occupy the moderate space. Instead, its positions do, because it focuses on moving the dialogue further to the left. The right, which prides itself on being more sensible and avoiding extremist labels is instead tarred with the extremist label, not because it has moved to the right, as the leftist media often insists, but because it hasn't moved to the left quickly enough.
The same phenomenon has occurred with Islam. Every time Islamists pull in their direction, the dialogue space is expanded to define new versions of moderation and extremism. Many Muslim terrorist groups are now moderate, not because they are moderate in our terms, but because they are moderate in Islamist terms.
The most common reason why a Muslim terrorist group is labeled as moderate is because is it less open to killing other Muslims than some of its more extreme variants. Violence no longer defines extremism, only the full scope of that violence does. All Muslim terrorist groups, including the moderate ones, favor suicide bombings directed at infidel civilians. Not all favor suicide bombings directed at other Muslims. Those who do are often labeled extremist.
Muslim terrorist groups who treat Shiite Muslims as infidels are increasingly viewed as moderate, contrasted with extremist Muslim terrorist groups who declare other Sunni Muslims to be infidels. And the truly extreme Muslim terrorist groups are the ones who define even other Sunni Islamists as infidels over minor differences.
The moderate paradox is that, while moderate positions are praised as superior to extremist positions, they are actually defined by extremist positions. The moderate is an echo of an extremist's voice, and is it the extremist who defines society, politics and culture. A moderate is a man who allows himself to be defined by extremists and there is nothing praiseworthy about that.
That is why the left is so obsessed with "right-wing extremism" and so eager to call for moderation on the Republican side. It knows that extremists shift the dialogue space to the right while moderates allow it to shift further to the left.
Moderates will not change America. Rather, they have already accepted that they will be changed. Change does not come from moderates, it comes from extremists whose eagerness to push the bubble is what brings change.