The American political spectrum is a lie. – Triptych Foundation

Our political language frequently fails to assist us in solving real problems. Instead of saying what we mean, we default to the accepted words and phrases in discussions. For example, too many pundits and politicians praise “moderate” Republicans and “centrist” Democrats as paragons of virtue. Our sloppy shorthand is the real problem, and the lukewarm fence-straddlers are champions of the status quo rather than trailblazers to a better future.

Alignment along a political spectrum from deep blue Democrats to fiery red Republicans is a ridiculous convention designed to make cable news graphics easier to produce. In reality, our political engagement looks more like my sons’ Lego bin. There are a lot of useful pieces in there to build something, but it’s mostly chaos that really hurts if you step on it. 

Americans are complicated. We have a wide range of views on a number of topics, and we change our minds all the time. Most of us are passionate about some of our perspectives, and we want to see our leaders embrace them. That’s the juice that motivates us to change our current political landscape. A middle ground may be a place where we arrive in politics, but it’s not a coherent political identity. 

The continuum model suggests that political extremists are simply the “most” Republican or Democratic. Violent members of Antifa aren’t just militant versions of mainstream Democratic thought; they’re a menace. The QAnon conspiracy folks are not stridently principled Republicans, their belief structure involves pizza and pedophiles. Sure, it’s useful to tie the political opposition to insane people, but it’s also a false narrative. 

So is the myth that the “middle” is ideal for accomplishing decent policy work. Who wants to be moderate when it comes to racial equality? How about a centrist stance on upholding the rule of law and the Constitution? No politician is for and against policies in equal measure. And no magical combination of policies forms the ideal “moderate” position. 

For example, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) is not known as a “moderate” at all. She did draft an excellent letter to congressional leadership rejecting the expansion of domestic national security powers in light of the attack on our nation’s Capitol. I agree with her position on the issue, and I’m acting in bad faith if I don’t support her. I didn’t become more liberal, and she’s not becoming more conservative. When we stop making broad judgements about the non-existent spectrum, we’re free to agree or disagree as we consider each issue. 

Our governing systems are well suited to navigating seemingly intractable differences. Unfortunately, lazy partisan leaders prevent amendments and votes than actually require members to exercise judgment and explain decisions to constituents. If members of Congress, for example, only vote on an appropriations omnibus and COVID-19 relief bill in a take-it-or-leave it fashion, rank-and-file members don’t have any meaningful ability to shape the contours of the measure. Offering and voting on legislation and amendments produces the back and forth critical to our republic. It’s a lot of work and hassle, but that’s literally what we elect legislators to do.  

Failure to actually use the legislative process to craft law means legislators aren’t forced to work towards compromise or explain failure to voters. Meanwhile, the “centrists” vote for whatever their respective party leadership spoon feeds them. In reality, it’s the go-along-to-get-along moderates who protect the status quo versus agitating for a more democratic process.

The other major defect in our current political rhetoric is that “moderate” has become shorthand for reasonable people who aren’t so dogmatic that they’re able to work with a broad array of individuals and perspectives. That doesn’t mean they’re politically neutral; it means they’re more effective at leading and building coalitions. Again, we need to say what we mean. That type of behavior isn’t “centrist;” it should be expected of anyone worth holding office. 

When Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) refuse to kill the Senate filibuster, they’re adhering to principles about how the Senate should run. When Liz Cheney (R-WY) and nine other Republicans vote to impeach former President Donald Trump, they’re not abandoning their conservative policy preferences; they’re making a judgment call about the behavior of the individual holding the highest office in America. We should hold them accountable for those choices, but the decisions aren’t locked into a sliding ideological scale. 

We must refuse to bind ourselves to the idea that the most “red” people are wannabe soldiers sacking the Capitol, and the “bluest” emerge from their parents’ basements and set fires during peaceful protests. I’m perfectly content to be an extreme Republican constitutionalist who finds common cause with Tlaib in preventing the destructive expansion of the federal surveillance state. It’s a more accurate description than “moderate,” and the practice might bring together some useful pieces to build sound policy amidst the political chaos.  

Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at

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