In Defense of Moderation

Moderation has always been at the heart of the American political system, and is much more than the proverbial golden mean between the extremes.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Last year’s presidential elections and the heated electoral campaign suggested that moderation is not a winning political tactic. To be sure, moderation did not get many people elected last November. But properly understood, moderation is actually a fighting virtue and winning card.

Interest in this old and elusive virtue has increased in the recent weeks, as we prepare for the inauguration of the new President. The title of a recent show on NPR in which I participated was “Moderation as Democracy’s Key in an Age of Extremes.” In the New York Times and Washington Post, Peter Wehner and Jennifer Rubin spoke about moderation as a potentially effective strategy of opposing Trump and making Congress less dysfunctional.

I am not sure moderation is the key to solving all our problems in our age of increased polarization and ideological intransigence. But paraphrasing Albert Camus’s words, I do believe that our world still needs today “burning hearts, men who know the proper place of moderation.”

How so? We first need to address the prevalent skepticism toward moderation on both the left and the right.

The listeners of the NPR program were not shy at expressing their skepticism. Some questioned whether moderation is a virtue at all, while a few claimed that there is no real market today for moderation in our political system dominated by money, distrust, and greed. Others argued that ours is a time for total opposition, radicalism, and mobilization instead of moderation. “I think I've figured out what annoys me about today's topic,” one listener wrote. “People don't organize based on ideas of moderation. On this view, “moderation now in the US would be called more accurately appeasement,” an endorsement for the status quo, or simply treason. “To be moderate is to be a bystander,” another listener remarked. “What we are witnessing is a fatal moral crisis of our nation. We cannot normalize our current political climate by feigning moderation as a realistic tactic.” Finally, one (Christian) listener went all the way to claim that moderation is, in fact, the root of all our problems today. Period.

Moderation cannot possibly be at the same time the key to all our problems and their root as well. It is a notoriously slippery concept, with a long tradition behind it. So let’s define this often misinterpreted virtue to avoid further confusion.

Moderation is a complex, difficult, and eclectic virtue which has many faces and a distinguished tradition. The latter goes as far back as Aristotle and Plato and continues in the works of Montesquieu, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville, to name only a few.

Moderation is much more than the proverbial golden mean between the extremes. It refers to several things: a certain character trait, a specific style of political action, and a unique set of institutional and constitutional arrangements. Behind all that, there is a unique political vision that may sometimes be difficult to grasp because it builds upon ideas and principles from all sides of the political spectrum. Yet, it is an original vision nonetheless.

What does it consist of? At its core lies a certain vision of the public good that seeks to promote more inclusion, toleration, fair competition, and fewer inequalities. As trimmers who seek to keep the ship of the state on an even keel, moderates display unhesitating loyalty to limited (and complex) government, freedom, and the rule of law. They eschew violence and favor incremental changes to improve their communities. Nonetheless, moderation should not be narrowly identified with the political center since those committed to this virtue can exist on all aisles of the political spectrum. Some moderates prefer to locate themselves in the center while others do not.

Political moderation has often been linked to the separation and balance of powers, executive veto, and bills of rights. That is why moderates promote social and political pluralism and work to promote balance between competing values, principles, ideas, and groups in society. But in so doing, they refuse to define one single best way, paying instead close attention to nuances and hybrid solutions. They think that gray, too, can be beautiful, as one of the heroes of my book, Adam Michnik, once memorably put it.

The moderates’s style of political action is best illustrated by their thinking politically rather than ideologically. Their opinions tend to be based on careful consideration of facts rather than on abstract moral imperatives. This way of addressing political issues is the opposite of ideological thinking, a closed system of thought based in eternal principles or infallible dogmas. As another great moderate (Raymond Aron) once said, “ in political affairs it is impossible to demonstrate truth, but one can try, on the basis of what one knows, to make sensible decisions.” The latter involve tough trade-offs and significant opportunity costs, and require constant small-scale adjustments and gradual steps. That is why moderates accept that we must learn how to cope with risks and unforeseeable consequences which simultaneously require pragmatic prudence and courage.

Another distinctive feature of the moderates’ style is their opposition to Manichaeism. Their world is not bipolar, black-and-white; it is a world made of many shades of gray (although perhaps not as many as fifty!). That is why moderates make a special effort to listen to all sides of the debate and keep the conversation open with their friends, critics, and opponents. Their invitation to dialogue and their willingness to speak to their critics demonstrate their courage and determination not to look for “safe spaces” and lukewarm solutions.

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Yet, moderation is not a virtue for everyone and for all seasons. A few decades ago, another moderate, Isaiah Berlin, confessed to Kay Graham, the editor of the Washington Post: “It obviously does not do to have a political position at all unless it is a god crude, simple thing, painted in bright colors.” He was right. It is difficult to act like a moderate because that implies a complex balancing act not unlike the art of walking along a thin wire or rope. It presupposes making constant judgments about how to balance different values and address the inevitable tensions of political life.

Moderation cannot then be a substitute for pragmatic partisanship for politics cannot function without strong contestation and deep disagreement. Moderation can however bring about the civility without which our system would be entirely dysfunctional. I think that John Adams was entirely right when writing that “without the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation … every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”

We should not forget that moderation has always been at the heart of the American political system. It may not offer a platform for effective mass mobilization, but being a moderate is not the same as being a bystander. Moderates like Abraham Lincoln in the U.S., Raymond Aron in France, and Adam Michnik in communist Poland put forward a bold agenda for resistance, civil discourse, and reform. Their examples demonstrate that moderation can offer a necessary compass to orient ourselves in the labyrinth of public and political life.

As such, moderation is, as Joseph Hall put it four centuries ago, “the silken string running through the pearl-chain of all virtues,” a cardinal virtue in the absence of which the normal functioning of political life would simply be unimaginable.

Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (Penn Press, 2017).