When Washington D.C. interns meet for the first time, one of the first things they learn is everyone’s political ideology. Many of the interns I met this summer considered themselves to be political moderates, which is certainly understandable. But I was surprised when a group of my new friends had a quasi-celebration about being middle-of-the-road. The conversation went something like this:

“You’re a moderate too?”

“Hell yeah, moderates unite.”

“Let’s high-five.”

I found this exchange odd since, based on what I already knew about some of the kids, I suspected their political ideologies were more distinct than they thought. And after spending much of the summer with them, I’d say I was right. One of them was a sociology major researching sex trafficking and human rights issues in third world countries. Another was a slightly religious social conservative. One endorsed Keynesian economics but berated the Democratic Party constantly. The last worked for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who’s really only a moderate when you compare him with the Tea Party.

This story intrigues me because throughout much of college, I’ve also had a tendency to refer to myself as a moderate. But as the anecdote above shows, the label doesn’t necessarily do justice to the beliefs of those bearing it. If my friends and I had mapped out how each of us felt on a range of issues, I’d be willing to bet that our opinions would have been very diverse.

So where does this tendency toward self-declared moderation come from? Individuals may be weary of associating themselves with one political party, especially when they think the members of that party are acting like idiots. For that matter, some may want to distance themselves from the numerous prominent images of “typical liberals” or “typical conservatives.” The truth is that there are lots of mixed messages in the public sphere about what it means to be liberal, conservative, or anything in between, and those messages can be difficult for any college student to grapple with.

Over the past three years, many things have led me to the conclusion that I was only moderately liberal. I didn’t care to protest when the University announced that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder would be the graduation speaker. I think it’s mostly futile to avoid making purchases from Walmart, BP or other corporations that have been denounced as immoral (unless the boycott is really organized — which it’s not). And during the health care debate two summers ago, I was regularly aggravated with Democrats who were completely unsympathetic to arguments about cost control.

I could go on elaborating on the above opinion or listing others like it, but the common thread to all of them is that they are all poorly executed attempts to implement liberal ideals. It took me a long time to realize that these opinions do not make me moderate. Many of my peers might tell you that I’m actually a raging liberal.

In my view, our country’s drug policy and its effect on the size of the prison population and minority communities are absolutely absurd. The question about taxes for the country’s wealthiest is a no brainer, and I’m fairly certain that beyond that, there are many other households (including my own) that can afford higher taxes. And I’ll guess no matter which party holds the presidency or Congress in the future, I’ll probably never think they are doing enough to help the country’s poorest.

For me, college has been a good opportunity to work through questions of political identity. In certain instances, terms such as liberal, conservative or moderate only serve as pigeonholes. In others, you have to suck it up and pick a side, even if you think the side you choose is full of idiots. I expect to continue developing insights about my identity as I finish college, and I hope other students find they have a similar experience, because in many instances, regular labels do not convey the full complexity of one’s opinion.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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