In Praise of Moderation
By Aurelian Craiutu
Moderates have not fared well lately in American politics. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has recently announced that she will not seek a fourth term because of the growing political partisanship in the Senate. An iconic figure of moderation in American politics, she will be remembered for having played a key role in the passing of the $787bn stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration in 2009 that was opposed by the majority of her republican colleagues on ideological grounds. In the current republican primaries, Mitt Romney has been working very hard to defend himself against accusations of being a “moderate.” This label has made him unappealing in the eyes of many Republican voters whom he has tried to sway by calling himself “a severely conservative governor.” Politicians who are running for office in the upcoming elections are strongly advised to distinguish themselves from those who practice moderation and pursue their agendas while looking to—and even drawing from—both the left and the right.
For all the strategic considerations surrounding all political campaigns, this should surprise us since political moderation is the touchstone of democracy which cannot function without compromise and bargaining. Yet moderation remains a concept that challenges our imagination and appears as a fuzzy virtue which defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Not surprisingly, we often tend to misrepresent or distort the true meanings of moderation. The latter has often been regarded as the virtue of tepid, middling, shy, timorous, indecisive, and lukewarm individuals, incapable of generating heroic acts or great stories. A few decades ago, Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed (before losing in the presidential elections of 1964): “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Our current political culture seems to have embraced again his skepticism toward moderation and, perhaps, has taken it a notch further. Among other things, the impending retirement from the Senate of six moderates (two Republicans, four Democrats) underscores the little stock many voters seem to place in this virtue. Not surprisingly, many of us find it difficult to be enthusiastic about something that seemingly lacks charisma and carries the connotation of small-mindedness, opportunism, or dullness. Instead, they are often fascinated by firm and stubborn politicians who stand uncompromisingly on principle and whose universe is a one-dimensional, black-and-white one.
As I argued in a recent book on this topic*, moderation is a difficult virtue for courageous minds, and one that cannot be studied in abstract, but only as instantiated in various historical and political contexts and discourses. In other words, there is no objective theory of moderation outside of particular situations. There is something about the nature of moderation that can only be captured through embodiment in the specific political and historical context and actors. The principles chosen by moderates have been—and will always be— inseparable from their concrete choices and decisions regarding certain actions performed in specific political, social, and historical contexts. What is moderate in one context and period may significantly differ from another. More importantly, moderation has many faces connected to each other. It is much more than a simple trait of character, a certain state of mind, or a disposition. In addition to its ethical meaning, moderation also has a distinctively political and institutional dimension, being linked to balance (and separation) of powers, social and political pluralism, and mixed government. As Montesquieu and the authors of The Federalist Papers demonstrated, political moderation rests on a bold constitutional vision based on a complex institutional architecture. As such, moderation requires great skills, strong determination, a great deal of courage, and (often) a good dose of non-conformism. That is why the majority of moderate politicians are not moral chameleons who seek personal advancement. They are “trimmers” who try to adjust the cargo and sails of the ship of state to keep it on an even keel. These adjustments may be small and unheroic, and they may not always fit the “party” line (as in the case of Senator Snowe, for example), but they often save the state from anarchy or ruin.
Although radical or extreme gestures create bold and colorful narratives which are often much more attractive than moderation, searching for the middle and the mean (as attributes of moderation) is always more difficult than making one’s journey along the margins. Moderate political action requires balancing and weighing various principles in each situation rather than merely resorting to a single set of universal principles or values. Moderation presupposes reasoning and deliberation, but it also demands intuition, foresight, and flexibility for which there is no single or simple formula. That is why moderation is a difficult and eclectic virtue which is not for all seasons and all people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not have been successful in challenging the Soviet communist system had he adopted a more moderate approach. Sometimes, only immoderate voices like his can successfully oppose tyranny.
The recent growing partisanship in the Congress has silenced moderates on both aisles and weakened their appeal and base. Moderates’ willingness to compromise and work with the other side has put them out of step with their own parties and decreased their chances of being (re)elected in the upcoming elections. The moderate middle has become a very lonely place in American politics—and a very insecure one. Therefore, we must take a new look at this elusive and difficult virtue, one that, in Montesquieu’s words, represents the supreme virtue of the legislator. Moderation is neither a fixed ideology (party platform), nor a merely positional virtue depending on the vitality and agenda of the extremes. Defined as the antonym of fanaticism and single-mindedness, moderation is particularly relevant today. Through their actions, moderates remind us that in politics we do not have to choose between good and evil, but between what is preferable and what is detestable.
Moderates perform a vital balancing role in our society. Without moderation, John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Defined as that virtue which allows us to see things in the right proportions and prevents us from resorting to hyperbole and violence, moderation blends measure, spirit, and reasonableness and makes one’s mind at once firm and flexible, full of common sense and vivacity. Moderation can be a fighting and combative virtue, and it should not be equated with indecision, shyness, and submissiveness. Moderates may sometimes benefit from partisanship and polarization insofar as the exposure to the crossfire of radicals can stimulate their imagination by encouraging them to develop original political and institutional responses to their problems. Paradoxically, like poisons taken in small dosages, various forms of extremism that act in the framework of legality can have healing effects if they trigger much-needed course corrections. By adopting the soundest attitudes and principles of all parties, moderates seek to facilitate agreements for the common good, and prevent the country from slipping into atomism, anarchy, or civil war. As members of a “party without banners,” they help preserve the fragile balance between various social forces and political interests on which pluralism, order, and freedom depend in our society.
*Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012) on which this short essay is based.