PUP author E.J. Dionne Jr. is mentioned as a noteworthy intellectual of liberal Catholicism in a New York Times op-ed
In last weekend’s NY Times, Molly Worthen laments the caricatured, politically right-wing version of Catholicism portrayed in the U.S. Presidential campaign, and argues for increased attention to an all-too-often ignored and ill-understood social justice orientation of liberal Catholicism. The tradition of liberal Catholicism, which is incompatible with the Ayn Randian visions of Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, remains alive and well, and is discussed and defended with eloquence in a recent Princeton University Press book by EJ Dionne Jr. policy making:
If the Democratic Party is not listening to liberal Catholics, it is partly because they are not in a position to speak very loudly. They are dodging the sights of a Roman hierarchy more preoccupied with smoking out left-leaning nuns than nurturing critical thinking.
“Is liberal Catholicism dead?” Time wondered a few years back. The answer is no: in some regards, liberal Catholic intellectuals are flourishing. They are writing and teaching, running social justice initiatives at the church’s great universities, ensconced in professorships around the Ivy League. Yet a cozy academic subculture can be as isolating as it is empowering.
The handful of nationally known Catholic political thinkers who might be called progressive, or at least compassionate and cosmopolitan — like the journalist-scholars Garry Wills and E. J. Dionne Jr., blogmeister Andrew Sullivan, or the feminist nun and blogger Sister Joan Chittister — are far outnumbered by the ranks of prominent Catholic conservatives in the trenches of activism and policy making.
Political theorist at Cambridge and British journalist David Runciman has offered us some of the most thought-provoking takes on the problems that plague modern politics. Author of The Politics of Good Intentions as well as Political Hypocrisy, his forthcoming book, The Confidence Trap, a history of democracy and crisis, is due out in Fall of next year. Here he discusses the idea of crisis elections: Certainly we faced one in 1932, 1980, and 2008, but are we facing one now? Peggy Noonan thinks so. What has been the historical impact on elected governments during times of crisis, and what makes election 2012 different? Read Runciman’s post here:
Major economic crises make it very difficult for elected governments to hold on to office. During the first four years of the Great Depression, every democracy around the world, from Australia to Austria, from Brazil to Bulgaria, changed government at least once. Many of them gave up on democracy altogether and reverted to some form of military rule. It was a sobering fact, much noted at the time, that when the world’s states gathered in London in June 1933 for the World Economic Conference, only two countries were still being run by the same people who had been in charge when Wall Street crashed in October 1929. They were Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia (and Stalin didn’t even bother to send a delegation to London). It added to the impression that crises suit dictatorships, not democracies.
The global economic crisis of the mid-1970s also proved a very tough time for democratic leaders. They found themselves being forced from office just about everywhere, either though defeat at the ballot box or driven out by scandals. Almost the only one to hold on was Indira Gandhi in India, and she only managed it by using emergency powers to suspend Indian democracy altogether in 1975. When she relented twenty-one months later and finally allowed elections, the voters kicked her out too.
This crisis has been different. Plenty of elected leaders who were in charge when Lehman’s went under nearly four years ago are still there now. Manmohan Singh in India, Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada and Recep Erdogan in Turkey have all been in office for well over the duration. This reflects the widely varying impact of the crisis on different parts of the democratic world. These four countries have all had relatively benign crises and their economies have proved fairly robust. The same is true of Australia, which has changed leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, but only because of an internal party coup; the same party is still in power. In fact, of the members of the G20, ten have had the same government since 2008, and only two of these are straightforwardly undemocratic (China and Saudi Arabia).
The result is that no clear pattern for democracy has emerged in this crisis. In some places, including Southern Europe, democracy has looked very fragile and in Italy and Greece there have been temporary suspensions; elsewhere, democracy has looked strong. The patterns of earlier crises were much clearer. The Great Depression was very bad for democracy and nearly destroyed it. The 1970s, in retrospect, were good for democracy. Countries that were able to change governments found an outlet for popular discontent. Authoritarian regimes that lacked a comparable outlet either fell apart (as in Greece and Portugal) or were forced to suppress the symptoms of the crisis (as in Eastern Europe) with disastrous long-term consequences. The democratic tendency to switch horses in tough times was a weakness in the 1930s. During the 1970s it was a strength.
The lack of a clear pattern this time round makes it hard to know where to place the US election of 2012. Is it even a ‘crisis’ election? The election of 2008, which took place two months after the Lehman’s debacle, definitively was. That was what helped Obama win. He inherited the crisis. In four years he has neither fixed it nor has he allowed it to spin out of control. He has surfed along with it. He doesn’t ‘own’ it, for better or for worse. That means there is still scope for competing narratives to take hold before November. Is it time for a change or time to stay the course? Either line might stick, depending on how well the candidates can deliver it.
But there is also still scope for the crisis to take another turn. This crisis differs from previous ones in being more inconclusive. It simply drags on, unresolved, unfathomable, and littered with false dawns. Though Europe has stabilized for now, it is not hard to imagine another lurch later this year, triggered by a Greek default or a political meltdown in Italy or a bank run in Spain, which takes the crisis to another level, and sweeps away another raft of elected governments, including in Germany and perhaps further afield.
Will the next wave hit before November? Who knows, but at the moment it seems unlikely. Obama has always struck me as a lucky politician. In crisis politics, as in comedy, the key to success is timing.
David Runciman teaches political theory at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy, and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.
Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.
How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter
In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)
Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.
To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting. He agreed that other people should not vote.
More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)
In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*
Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.
Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?
I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.
I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk. Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop. Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.
*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.
We often hear that it’s our civic duty to vote, but according to ethicist Jason Brennan, author of the controversial book The Ethics of Voting, most people have no business heading to the polls at all, since they won’t vote in an informed, competent, and morally reasonable way. But no harm done, right? Certainly voting is a high stakes game, with policies that impact our healthcare, our rights, and our economic realities hanging in the balance, but the reality is individual voters—even ignorant, biased, and irrational ones—carry almost no power. Shouldn’t this liberate your average uninformed but patriotic citizen to exercise their democratic right and vote however they please? Not according to Brennan. Read his post on why you (and your logic-challenged uncle and your current events-blind friends) shouldn’t feel guilty for staying home on election day:
When I see people with an “I Voted!” sticker, my first thought is, “Shame on you!”
Imagine 12 people are serving on a jury in a murder case. The prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. The court asks the jury to reach a verdict. They find the defendant guilty.
Suppose four of the jurors paid no attention during the trial. When asked to deliberate, they were ignorant of the details of the case. They decided more or less at random.
Suppose four of the jurors paid some attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty not on the basis of the evidence, but on wishful thinking and on bizarre conspiracy theories they happen to believe.
Suppose four of the jurors paid attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty because he is an atheist, while they are Christians. Like many Americans, the jurors trust atheists no more than they trust rapists.
In the case above, the jurors acted in a vile and despicable way. The defendant is possibly innocent. He does not consent to the outcome of the decision. The decision will be imposed upon him through violence and threats of violence. The decision could harm him, and deprive him of property, liberty, or even life. Jurors have a moral obligation to decide these kinds of cases in a competent and morally reasonable way.
This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government.* The outcomes—including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on—are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.
However, as I document in The Ethics of Voting, the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent. Most are like the first eight jurors in the thought experiment above. (Most non-voting citizens are even worse.) If so, I argue, they owe it to the rest of us to abstain. Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.
There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.
Of course, there’s a difference between jurors and voters. Individual jurors have a lot of power. Individual voters have almost no power. You are more likely to win Powerball than to decide an election. If so, does that excuse individual voters? My individual vote will not hurt anybody, so doesn’t that mean I can just vote however I’d like?
I don’t think so. I’ll illustrate why not with an analogy. Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. Suppose they are trained to shoot so that each bullet will hit the child at the same time. Suppose each bullet, on its own, would suffice to kill her. Suppose also that you can’t stop the shooters. The child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose the shooters offer to let you join in and fire with them. Is it okay for you to take the 101st shot?
Most people, upon reflection, think not. Even though you don’t make a difference, you have a moral duty to keep your hands clean. You have a duty not to join in with the group when the group harms innocent people. Only a monster would take the 101st shot, even though it makes no difference to the outcome.
So it goes with voting. If you are an ignorant, irrational, biased, capricious, or malevolent voter, your vote makes no difference. However, you’re the 101st shooter. We shouldn’t celebrate you for voting. We should hold you in contempt.
Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.
The video above is a short excerpt from a longer interview. To watch the complete segment, please visit the Charlie Rose Show’s site: http://www.charlierose.com/view/content/12421
When it comes to elections, much worry goes into whether or not voters are truly ‘qualified’ to head to the polls. According to Jason Brennan, many are simply as bad as drunk drivers. But do we make “smarter” decisions politically as a group than as individuals? Hélène Landemore thinks the answer is yes. An assistant professor of political science at Yale university, she is also the author of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence and the Rule of the Many, forthcoming in January 2013. Recently she took part in a Q&A about her book, explaining the concept of collective intelligence, its superiority over individual decision-making, and why democracy is the best way to make decisions for the common good. Read her interview here:
What is “democratic reason”? How does it relate to the concept of collective intelligence in your title?
I call democratic reason the collective intelligence of democratic citizens as it is expressed through various democratic mechanisms. In my book, I study the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges from public deliberation and voting on issues of common interest, but it could also be channeled through other venues for democratic participation that I’m not considering. The concept of collective intelligence is broader than that of democratic reason and has been conceptualized and studied by various disciplines since at least the 1980s. I am simply extending it to politics.
The term “democratic reason” itself was meant as an echo to the famous Rawlsian concept of “public reason.” Democratic reason is distinct from John Rawls’ public reason in at least two ways. First, democratic reason is a descriptive, rather than a normative concept. Whereas Rawls’ public reason is meant to serve as a standard of public justification, a filter for what can be said in the public sphere, democratic reason is an ideal-type of the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges in the political domain. Second, to the extent that both concepts have a descriptive content, democratic reason is meant to be more inclusive than public reason. For Rawls, the people who typically voice public reason are representatives, official candidates, or judges. By contrast, any citizen or group of citizens can be a part of democratic reason.
Your book argues that democracy is a smart decision rule. Can you explain?
My conception of democracy is that it is a collective decision procedure combining two mechanisms: deliberation and majority rule. Deliberation allows the group to identify problems and come up with potential solutions. Majority rule maximizes the chances of picking the better solution. I argue that democracy, understood as such a collective decision procedure, can turn the lead of individual judgments into something like gold: a collective output that no individual within the group could have come up with on his own.
The argument is also comparative. At the heart of the book is the claim that the inclusive nature of democratic decision-making—giving everyone a voice on matters of common concern—ensures that our decisions are probabilistically smarter than if we delegated them to a dictator or a group of oligarchs. I make that claim assuming that the dictator and the oligarchs would be both smart and benevolent, which certainly stacks the deck in favor of these non-democratic forms of rule. And yet, in my theory, democracy still comes out on top, in terms of producing good political outcomes more often than these alternative rules.
Can you explain how the inclusiveness of democratic procedures ensure their superiority over less inclusive ones, such as a dictatorship or an oligarchy?
Here I need to introduce the work of Scott Page, on which I build. In his book The Difference (2007), Page argues that there are two components to collective intelligence: the individual intelligence of the members of the group and the cognitive diversity of the group. This concept of cognitive diversity is crucial. It refers to the difference in the ways in which people see the world and interpret it. Page shows that when it comes to collective problem solving, it is more important to have enough cognitive diversity in the group than to have very smart people in it. In other words, if you want to maximize your chances to solve a given problem, you are better of with a group of moderately smart but diverse thinkers, rather than a homogeneous group of even very smart people. That’s what he calls the “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem.”
What I do in my book is build on this theory to argue that to the extent that politics is about problem solving, the great advantage of democratic decision-making over alternative decision rules is its inclusiveness, which naturally maximizes the cognitive diversity of the group of problem-solvers. That’s what I call the “Numbers Trump Ability Theorem.” The more people you include in the decision process, all things equal otherwise, the smarter the group is likely to be.
What do you mean by “smart” outcomes or “right” political choices?
I think everyone would agree that some political decisions are better or worse. By “right” choices, I mean that democratic decisions tend to be better rather than worse in at least that minimal sense. The domain of questions where such better or worse answers can be assumed to exist—what I call the “epistemic” domain—can be contrasted with the domain of coordination issues and the domain of pure value or interest conflict. Coordination issues, such as “Should we drive on the left or on the right of the road?,” do not have better or worse solutions. The right or left side of the road will do as long as we all agree on the same side. As to pure value or interest conflict, it is the domain of questions where we estimate that the point is not to seek the truth but simply to settle disagreement fairly. Epistemic questions, by contrast, are questions where disagreement is a result of ignorance. Examples of such epistemic questions could include: Is austerity the right policy to solve the economic crisis? How do we lower crime or the number of college dropouts? Was going to war in Iraq a mistake? More controversial epistemic questions, which some would perhaps phrase as pure value conflicts, would be: Should same sex couples be granted the right to marry? Should euthanasia be legalized?
Assuming your theoretical claim about the superiority of democratic regimes lends itself to an empirical test, what do you make of the success of autocratic or oligarchic regimes like China or Singapore?
Here you have to remember that my argument is probabilistic. I claim that on average and all things equal otherwise, democratic decision making can be expected to perform better than non-democratic decision making. But in some cases, non-democratic decision making will do better. So one or even a few exceptions (assuming that your examples are well-chosen) do not refute my view. I’m not denying that, occasionally, an oligarchy will outperform a democracy or that some autocratic decisions will turn out to be better than democratic ones. I’m just arguing that the probability of something like this happening is lower than the reverse probability of a democracy outperforming an oligarchy. The safer gamble is democracy.
Hélène Landemore is assistant professor of political science at Yale University. She is the author of Hume: Probability and Reasonable Choice.
Dr. Amy Gutmann appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning to discuss compromise in American politics.
For more on this subject, read Dr. Gutmann’s new book, co-authored with Dennis Thompson, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It.
Do citizens value compromise? Americans are ambivalent about it. That is the most striking pattern revealed in surveys of public opinion in recent years. The ambivalence shows itself in public attitudes toward politicians who compromise and also toward compromise itself. In a typical survey, the vast majority of Americans said they prefer leaders willing to compromise, but at the same time two-thirds of all the respondents also said that they “like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular.”
Are these conflicted feelings about compromise to blame for Senator Lugar’s upset in Indiana?
Some news reports have suggested that Lugar’s openness to compromise may have played a factor in his stunning loss to challenger Richard Mourdock (“Mr. Mourdock’s campaign was fueled by Tea Party groups and national conservative organizations that deemed Mr. Lugar too willing to compromise…” writes the New York Times).
And Mourdock, for his part, is already trumping his unwillingness to compromise in places like The Hill:
Mourdock, who won in part on the strength of the Tea Party, also predicted there won’t be much compromise in the next Senate.
“I recognize that this is one of those times where there is great polarization between the two parties, and frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum — I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise,” Mourdock said on CNN’s “Starting Point” Wednesday.
“You never compromise on principles — if people on the far left have a principle they want to stand by, they should never compromise. Those of us on the right should not either,” he said.
Yet, history tells us that successful government requires compromise, so where does this leave us?
For a more circumspect take on the role of compromise in government, check out this exclusive excerpt at Salon.com from The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.
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.
Some links to explore this subject further:
- An excerpt from The Spirit of Compromise by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9657.pdf
- A written Q&A with the authors: http://press.princeton.edu/releases/m9657.html
- A review by Paul Starr in the next issue of The New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102761/compromise-margalit-guttmann-thompson-yalta?page=0,0
- Happily Mr. Starr also reviews another PUP title On Compromise and Rotten Compromises by Avishai Margalit — we are the one-stop shop for political compromise books whether your interest is domestic or international
William G. Howell, political science professor at University of Chicago and author of Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action was interviewed for a front page article in today’s New York Times on the recent increase in Obama’s use of executive power. Charlie Savage writes about how since negotiations over a deficit reduction deal broke down, Obama has bucked congressional gridlock using unilateralist strategy to push forward policies from curbing domestic violence to raising fuel economy standards. Read the full piece for a bipartisan history of the use of executive power and how this approach to “getting things done” in spite of opposition has marked an important turning point for the current administration.