No man has ever raised an army, started a crusade, or gotten a date by pronouncing himself a moderate. And yet, there's a certain kind of political heroism in moderation.
When it comes to ideas — psychology, theology, philosophy — I'm an inveterate radical, eager to think boldly and seek clarity and insight by going to the root of things (which was the original meaning of the word "radical"). But not in politics, where my instinct is toward moderation — to resist the seduction of radicalism, convinced that when it is wedded to political power, extremism (even in the defense of liberty or in the pursuit of justice) will often cause suffering, wreck havoc, and, yes, make things worse.
This is a critically important time to reflect on the choice between moderation and radicalism. The Republican Party has grown increasingly extreme over the past eight years, culminating in the nomination and election to the presidency of a genuinely radical candidate who appears to delight in actively breaking from a range of established norms and traditions — the civic habits that keep our political system functioning, stable, and legitimate.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are deeply divided between center-left (neoliberal) and harder-left (socialist) factions. At the same time, the shock of their painfully narrow defeat at the hands of Donald Trump (a man they consider a racist, a sexist, and quite possibly a Hitlerian fascist) has sent many liberals into a tailspin, succumbing to outright panic and indulging in unhinged, immoderate judgments about the state of the country and the world.
One can feel the political center hollowing out a little more every day, pointing to the need to reflect anew on the case for political moderation — and against political radicalism.
In undertaking this thinking, we have as a guide an important new book (which I had a hand in publishing): Aurelian Craiutu's Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. Craiutu examines a series of thinkers (including Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Norberto Bobbio, and Adam Michnik) who championed political moderation against the various (far-right and far-left) radicalisms that buffeted European politics throughout the 20th century. Along the way, Craiutu also teases out some general tendencies common to all moderate political thinkers and actors.
For instance, consider the idea of "trimming."
Ideologues enter politics to reach a specified end or goal. They aim to take control of the ship of state and turn it to port or starboard regardless of the condition of the seas and weather or the disposition of the passengers and crew. An ideological radical does the same thing, only with less restraint, throwing the rudder hard to one side or the other without concern for risks, obstacles, or unintended consequences. A storm gathering force along the horizon? Talk of mutiny below deck? No matter. Just turn the wheel and gather as much speed as possible in the right direction.
Moderates are different. They tend to be "trimmers" — meaning they trim their sails, catching the wind with the greatest possible efficiency, allowing for maximum control and precise course correction and adjustment in response to changing conditions. That's because moderates recognize the singular importance of keeping the ship afloat and its crew and passengers safe, regardless of the direction the latest in the succession of captains is determined to lead the vessel.
When I finished graduate school in the late 1990s, I was firmly on the right. But a few years later, during my time working for an ideologically conservative magazine that actively supported the administration of George W. Bush, I came to believe that the Republicans had become too ideologically doctrinaire in foreign policy and too culturally populist in their efforts to energize the religious right. So I shifted several steps to the left and voted for John Kerry in 2004.
I've supported Democrats ever since — and made a point of repeatedly criticizing Republicans for their drift further and further into ideological extremism. But I've also made a point of calling out liberals when their own ideological commitments have led them to overplay their hand, pushing the country too far and too fast in one direction or another, thereby helping to provoke and empower the very forces on the right that have now seized control of the GOP and catapulted Donald Trump to the White House.
That's trimming in action — working to find a point of equilibrium or balance between opposing ideological forces at play in the country at any given moment. Though it might sound like high "Broderism" — the tendency of a middle-of-the-road pundit to follow the late Washington Post columnist David Broder in lazily positioning himself at equal distance from whatever ideological line the two parties happen to be pushing on a given day — the process of weighing the alternatives is actually more complex and nuanced than that. It involves combining convictions about the ultimate ends of politics, the nation's common good, distinctly American ideas about the proper role and scope of government, and idiosyncracies of American political history with the latest public opinion and election data, as well as recent domestic and international news.
Put it all together and the moderate counsels shifting the ship of state a bit this way and that from week to week, with course corrections adding up to something more substantial only as those weeks turn into months, years, and decades.
That can make moderation sound like a form of temperamental conservatism, and in some sense that's true (though this non-ideological form of conservatism is quite compatible with supporting policies at various points on the political spectrum). As Craiutu notes throughout his study, moderates prize stability, constancy, and the norms of civic life that serve as the background rules that make small-r republican politics possible.
Trump is a one-man norm shredder — an anti-conservative "chaos candidate" (in the apt words of Jeb Bush) who's now on his way to becoming a president who spreads that chaos throughout the executive branch, American political culture, and even the international order itself. He shows every indication of intending to disregard many of the formal and informal constraints that impinge upon any president's behavior, hem it in, and direct it into moderate channels. That will leave Trump (a man with a long track record of immoderate impulses and judgments) remarkably free to determine for himself how to comport himself in office.
That makes this moderate exceedingly nervous about the nation's future. And more convinced than ever of the need to formulate a measured response to the flood of immoderate provocations with which we are bound to be barraged on a daily basis beginning on Jan. 20.