I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
I wish you were either hot or cold; if I had my way you’d be one way or the other, all the way, but you lukewarm types, you passionless types, you make me want to vomit.
—John of Patmos, speaking for God (late first century)
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
—Edmund Burke (1770)
The well-known quote attributed to statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) perfectly describes the role played by moderates and political independents in any society—good people who do nothing to stop the triumph of evil.
The persistence of evil in a nation is more due to the inaction and inattention of political and religious moderates than it is to the actions of dedicated white supremacists and authoritarian politicians. Throughout history, those who consider themselves moderates, centrists, and independents have, by their silence, been complicit with the rule of autocrats and evil regimes. Whether they realize it or not, they are often collaborators with tyrants and despots. They have historically allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, and oppression to flourish by their self-centered lack of attention and action.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) wrote:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.
Today, political moderates and centrists like to portray themselves as common-sense people who keep an open mind on issues, are willing to listen to different viewpoints, think for themselves, and are not extreme in their beliefs. These are the so-called independent voters who do not strongly affiliate with either major party or their ideologies. They often feel themselves to be above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us.
A critic might view moderates less charitably. They are what Richard Nixon called “the silent majority.” They tend to take refuge in the safe middle, preferring to blend in so they don’t stand out. Although they may actually lean one way or another, they fear that labels of ”liberal” or “conservative” may lump them with people with whom they do not completely agree. And for the most part, they are politically inactive. Independent voters are often portrayed as political free agents with the potential to alleviate the nation’s rigid partisan divisions and capable of building a national consensus. They do possess the numeric capacity to shift society toward good or evil ends. But in reality, they don’t really care all that much. Their lives are too self-focused.
Gallup polling has shown that between 35 to 38 percent American voters have identified as independents over the last 20 years. A March 2019 Pew survey confirmed that about 43 percent of voters presently claim the independent label in the midst of a very polarized nation. But, they found that only about 10 percent are truly independent—not leaning toward either party. The rest gravitate toward slightly liberal or slightly conservative politics. Independents tend to be center-left on social issues, middle-of-the-road on economics, and center-right on foreign policy. But they do not represent a clearly defined third way—an independent ideology. They don’t really stand for anything much except for a stated belief in compromise. They tend to be the kind of people who go along to get along, not making waves. They glide through life unburdened by the need to take a stand on anything of substance.
lack of engagement and attention
The one characteristic that seems to unite all political independents is their lower voter registration and voting rates than the partisans on the left (who now represent 26 percent of voters) and on the right (29 percent). Of those 43 percent who declare no partisan leaning, only about a third bother to vote. That means that nearly 70 percent of these centrist and moderate independents refuse the responsibilities of citizenship.
What we see is a curve like an inactive jump rope with high political engagement on both extremes and low engagement in the middle. Further, independents often show a low level of interest in politics and a corresponding lack of knowledge about what is truly going on in our society. Political parties arose, in part, to establish a voting shorthand for citizens who don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, which is most people. Surveys since the 1960s demonstrate that political knowledge directly correlates with an ideological understanding and consistency. A poll of Americans’ attentiveness to the 2016 election revealed that 38 percent of respondents observed the election “somewhat closely” while 22 percent followed “not too closely” and 8 percent “not at all.” A combination of the “not too closely” and “not at all” groups indicate that about a third of the American electorate do not pay attention and do not care about the political issues of our time. These are likely those same independents who do not vote. In our current hyper-polarized climate only self-focused moderates could possibly be inattentive.
These results are not at all surprising given the tedium of politics. People have better things to do. Plus, many often prefer entertainment over knowledge. Independents are more likely to know about the latest sports, reality TV, and Hollywood gossip than about Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee (February 2019) or the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings (November 2019). The term “low information voters” has been used to identify people who may vote, yet are generally poorly informed about issues and candidates. When they do vote, they generally choose a candidate they find personally appealing, regardless of the candidate’s stance on policy and issues, and regardless of the political ideology they represent. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
We seldom realize how much conservative evangelical Christianity has contributed to the ignorance of the American electorate, especially on the right. Significant segments of the population know very little about the world they inhabit and what they do “know” is often woefully incorrect. Political commentator Ron Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, sees it this way:
Surveys conducted every two years by the National Science Foundation consistently demonstrate that slightly more than half of Americans reject the settled science concerning human evolution. They are not unaware that virtually all credible scientists accept the overwhelming evidence that we evolved from earlier species. They simply choose not to accept that consensus because it doesn’t comport with their deeply held beliefs. Many also embrace the absurd notion that the earth is only six thousand years old. Astonishingly, in the early 21st century, around a quarter of our citizenry seems unaware that said earth revolves around the sun.
It is a mistake to regard concern about such ignorance as effete snobbery or elitist condescension. While misapprehensions about basic astronomy, earth science, and biology may have little impact on these folk’s daily lives, does anyone actually believe that similarly uninformed views aren’t likely to affect their grasp of policies regarding, say, climate change? Income inequality? Gun violence? Immigration?
Profound knowledge gaps like the aforementioned reveal an inability to think critically and leave a person vulnerable to all manner of chicanery.
Political independents are the great hunting ground of the Democrats and Republicans. They need to be swayed to achieve a plurality in elections. Given their non-ideological stance, they can often be persuaded by strong personalities at either end of the spectrum. Sociologists have been curious to understand why some independents, despite their supposedly moderate beliefs, eventually adopt and support more partisan viewpoints. And they have endeavored to understand the process by which extreme partisan viewpoints can become mainstreamed in a society.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute provided an answer. Using mathematical modeling, researchers found that there is a 10 percent tipping point for when opinions held by a committed minority spread to the rest of the population. For a viewpoint to become popular, a minimum number of group members must first adopt it. Once this threshold is reached, the viewpoint becomes self-sustaining with more and more adopting it. Thus, the preferences of an inflexible minority can be mainstreamed once enough moderates adopt them. Then social conformity maintains those preferences. This explains the persistence of racial biases, fear of immigrants, and mistrust of other religions beyond a small group of committed alt-right proponents.
An article titled “Political Moderates Are Lying,” states that once a political position has become popular, people enter a self-perpetuating echo chamber.
If everyone in your group holds the same viewpoint and constantly pats one other on the back for holding this view, then chances are you’re stuck in an echo chamber. There are no fundamental disagreements or internal debates. Acceptable ideas are “echoed” both because many people share them and because most refrain from speaking honestly. A group of likeminded individuals can reinforce one another’s tentative viewpoints through repeated interactions . . . We enjoy being around ideological compatriots. But this drive to associate with the likeminded has become excessive. Our communities are fragmented. And echo chambers are everywhere.
They key psychological factor for understanding social behavior is known as “preference falsification.” Developed by economist Timur Kuran (b. 1954), preference falsification occurs when an individual publicly misrepresents their private views to fit into a social group. It is conformity for the sake of social self-interest. For most people, reputation matters. We falsify our preferences to maintain or improve our standing within a group. Conformity to group preferences yields approval, affection, and advancement within the group. Disobedience, however, may cost us our seat at the vaunted “cool table.” The punishment for nonconformity is disrespect and ostracism. Just ask any middle-schooler.
not to choose is to choose
In their desire to be neutral or nonpartisan, moderates and independents actually take a position. When a person avoids taking sides or hides their true values, they lend support to current power structures and systems. By their silence, they enable and sustain the status quo. To speak or to remain silent become moral choices in times of injustice. As Desmond Tutu (b. 1931) said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) made a similar point in his acceptance speech for the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict . . . [an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
(Note: This post is an excerpt from the manuscript for People of the Way: Passion and Resistance in a Postmodern World to be published later this year.)
 A creative paraphrase of Revelation 3:15-16. These are words that John, the author of Revelation, reports that he was commanded by Christ to write to the church community in the city of Laodicea, criticizing them for a lack of passion, zeal, and courage in the face of empire.
 Ron Reagan, “The Problem Isn’t Just Trump. It’s Our Ignorant Electorate,” The Daily Beast, March 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-problem-isnt-just-trump-its-our-ignorant-electorate
 RPI News, “Minority Rules: Scientists discover the Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” July 2011, https://news.rpi.edu/luwakkey/2902
 Vincent Harinam and Rob Henderson, “Political Moderates Are Lying,” Quilette web site, https://quillette.com/2018/07/02/political-moderates-are-lying/
 Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies (Harvard, 1997)