The “Moderate” Voter and the Selfish Pundit

William SaletanDigby wrote an interesting article over at Slate yesterday, Attack of Radical “Moderates”: How Tea Party and Liberals Are Both Being Swindled. It focuses on an Ezra Klein article from last year that somehow I missed, No One’s Less Moderate Than Moderates. And this, in turn, involves some recent research by a couple of political scientists who demonstrated something that really should have been obvious: statistical techniques were grouping together as “moderate” people who actually had extreme views on both the left and the right.

I’ve been saying this for years. Digby calls the views incoherent, but I don’t think that’s generally true. In my experience, people are fairly conservative in their social beliefs and fairly liberal in their economic beliefs. There is nothing inconsistent about being virulently anti-immigrant and being in favor of taxing the rich more. And if you think about it, criticizing this viewpoint is kind of offensive. Rich business owners are pro-immigrant and anti-tax. In both cases, the people with those views think that these beliefs are in their best interests. (Working class people are probably wrong to be anti-immigrant, but the economics of the matter is certainly not obvious.)

DigbyBut what neither Digby nor Klein talk about is what I see as the major disconnect: why is it that most people are of the social conservative and economic liberal type, while the standard “moderate” in the media is a social liberal and economic conservative? If you’ve been reading me these past many years, you know my answer: it is that the media we get is not a function of what consumers want; it is a function of the interests of upper class journalists.

Way back in 2012, I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. (I like alliteration too much sometimes.) My point was that William Saletan’s “centrism” (he actually self identifies as a “liberal Republican”) is just a function of what is best for the greater good… of William Saletan:

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

Of course, as Klein quoted one of the researchers as saying, “When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want.” It’s more or less the same thing. For example, no one I know thinks that Thomas Friedman is anything but a joke. However, in the upper-middle and upper classes he has a reputation as a sage. And this is why his next book — “The World Is Shaped Like a Taxi Driver In Dubai”? — will have a media campaign with only slightly fewer resources than the invasion of Normandy.

Think about it this way: people don’t demand this or that person become a columnist. In the pre-web days, newspapers couldn’t even know who was popular with readers. (Although they could tell who was popular with other columnists and the elite!) Now it’s different. But not that much different. When Forbes listed the Top Liberal Pundits, many of the people on the list were not liberals: Andrew Sullivan, Maureen Dowd, Christopher Hitchens, Chris Matthews, Fareed Zakaria, Jon Stewart, Thomas Friedman, Fred Hiatt, Arianna Huffington. Some of these people are conservative — the rest of “moderates” — usually of Saletan mold. This is what Sullivan had to say about being on the list:

For the record, I support a flat tax and, as my liberal readers know, find progressive taxation unjust and counter-productive; I’m skeptical of universal healthcare on European lines and have long defended a free market in healthcare and pharmaceuticals… [And on and one and on. -FM]

The “top” liberal was Paul Krugman and I rather wonder if Krugman would have developed his following and influence in a pre-web world. As I recall, he was brought to The New York Times to write about international economics. It was only because George W Bush was such a terrible president that Krugman turned to domestic matters. But even with all that, I really wonder how long he would have lasted under Fred Hiatt.

The main takeaway here is simple: “moderate” in the media environment is nothing more than code for “what is believed by the elites.” That’s not to say that there aren’t actual moderates. Jon Stewart is certainly one of those. The fact that he is generally seen as “liberal” is an indictment of our political system. But it is clear that we should be very careful in using the “moderate” label — especially as it applies to the American voter. Because very few of them are actually moderate. What they are is populist. And given that what they want is exactly the opposite of what the elites want, it is no wonder that reporting on them glosses over this important distinction.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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