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Memorial Week in Evaluation: On the Disappearance of Political Moderates by Eleanor Chelimsky

My name is Eleanor Chelimsky and my work has generally involved defining the multiple roles of evaluation, moving it into new areas, and assuring its credibility and utilization in policymaking. I also served as president of AEA.

The loss I mourn most, these days, is that of the political moderate (also known as the intellectual centrist, the tolerant pluralist, or the skeptical idealist) whose ilk used to populate the congressional stage but appears now to be vanishing from our midst.  It’s no secret that extremists from both right and left have been squeezing out Republican and Democratic moderates for some time now.  I first noticed this anti-centrist movement back in 1995 (based on a paper by Newt Gingrich*), and it has now accomplished an enormous shift of power away from the political center, with a corresponding decline in the capability of endangered centrists to perform the congressional function of managing conflict:  that is, to find common ground among the extremes, communicate effectively across tensions, build consensus, and enact legislative policy that supports the national public interest).  On one side of this polarization desert, we find an aggressive conservative nostalgia for past glories (expressed in proposed policies that minimize government expense).  On the other, we find equally aggressive liberal anxiety about economic and social inequities (expressed in proposed policies that would spend money to strengthen the national safety-net).  These public-interest values on both sides are, of course, entirely legitimate, have existed since the founding fathers, have always been in conflict, and have always needed careful legislative management.

So the problem I see here devolves from three practical realities:

(1) the management of political conflict is a critical function of any legislature;

(2) such management relies on civil debate, expert negotiation, but above all, compromise**; and

(3) political moderates typically present a reasonable balance of public-interest values in their thinking (contrary to extremists), and they also excel at those needed skills of debate, negotiation and compromise that extremists dismiss or despise.

As a result, I worry that the exit of political moderates will affect the quantity and quality of our law-making, the degree to which those laws will promote the public interest (rather than private or factional interests), and the likelihood that evaluation, audit and science will be called on to examine the important questions that arise naturally in rational consideration of policy effectiveness, cost, or acceptability to the various populations affected by new or changed laws. The recent experience with Brexit, where no expert analysis of short- and long-term costs and benefits was ever presented to the British public before the June referendum, and the current “debate” on American health care in which the analysis of estimated results by the Congressional Budget Office has been given short shrift by extremists, both resoundingly illustrate the profound dangers of weakening the power of moderates in government.

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  • Susan Kistler · May 30, 2017 at 8:07 pm


    Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. As always, your words make me think deeply and that is a pleasure unto itself.

    I share your sadness in the demise of a moderate, centrist, voice among our elected politicians (although I would contend that it lives in the hearts and minds of many of those of us who are simply citizens, and who are often baffled by the rhetoric that fills the news).

    Yesterday, Robert Mueller spoke to our high school graduates at Tabor Academy (the boarding school at which I live). He extolled to them, and to us all, the virtues of honesty, integrity, and service. I was taken by the sad reality that these too were in such short supply.

    In reading your piece, I wondered if the two might be related. When pushed towards political extremes, perhaps we lose our grasp on the truth as it is sacrificed at the altar of righteous indignation. When we cannot adequately take on another’s perspective in order to understand an issue, then what is left but our own perspective and that must then serve as the truth.


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