Today we have a thrillingly timely blog post from Aurelian Craiutu, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, released by Penn Press in December 2016. Craiutu's book examines the writings of prominent twentieth-century thinkers as he seeks to define the history and character of moderation as a political idea, as well as its limitations. Ultimately, Faces of Moderation argues that moderation remains crucial for today's encounters with new forms of extremism and fundamentalism across the world.
Moderates have not fared well lately in American politics. A few years ago, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) 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 $787 billion stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration in 2009 that was opposed by the majority of her republican colleagues on ideological grounds. In 2012, Mitt Romney worked 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.” In turn, Richard Lugar was challenged and defeated in the primary elections by a radical conservative, Richard Mourdock, who will be remembered only for his extremist positions on abortion which sealed his ultimate defeat at polls. The most recent elections left no room for moderates either and rewarded hyperbole and ideological intransigence over compromise and moderation. As a result, politicians who will be running for office in future elections will be 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
This should surprise us since political moderation is the touchstone of democracy which cannot function without a combination of compromise and bargaining. Yet moderation remains a fuzzy concept that challenges our imagination and appears as an ambiguous virtue which defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Be that as it may, it may be the most necessary political virtue right now, especially in the aftermath of our contested elections and presidential debates. We have never seen so much incivility and ideological intransigence as in the last year and the increased polarization of the country has created dep rifts that left us uncertain about our future. We are likely to rediscover the importance of moderation after all the noise about campaigning for office disappears and the issue of governing returns into the limelight. How so? What chances does moderation have in a climate of increasing polarization and partisanship? And how can one be enthusiastic about something often identified with weakness and indecisiveness?
This is what I have tried to answer in my new book, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, which is part of a larger multi-volume project meant to shed fresh light on the complexity of this virtue for courageous minds. Enlightened minds from Aristotle to Montaigne and Montesquieu saw something in moderation that we seem to miss today. They praised moderation as the supreme virtue of legislators and equated it with practical wisdom. Moderation, they argued, has the great advantage of being a virtue tailored to human nature; it aims neither too high nor too low. But they also understood that moderation is a complex and difficult virtue. It defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Furthermore, moderation is not virtue for everyone, nor for all seasons. Some will always tend to go to extremes, no matter what and there are circumstances in which it is not possible or desirable to be moderate.
Four and a half decades ago, Saul Alinsky, a famous community activist from Chicago, published a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. It was a passionate counsel on how to bring about social change in a turbulent age. Rules for Radicals became an instant best-seller and influenced subsequent generations of community activists. Can we do the same for moderation today? What would the rules for realistic and pragmatic moderates look like in the age of Trump? Here are a few potential rules that I would like to propose in a form of a Decalogue sui generis that should be taken, of course, with a grain of salt.
Rule number one. Do not assume that moderation is appeasement, betrayal of principles, or sheer weakness! Accept instead hat moderation is a complex and eclectic virtue. It is neither a fixed ideology nor a party platform that would allow us to organize around it. What makes moderates different is their refusal to define one single best way and do not have fixed truths or dogmas. Instead, they examine facts and are prepared to modify their beliefs when facts change.
Rule number two. Do not confound moderation with indecisiveness! If moderates lack the assurance that allows one to settle everything and claim the right to hesitate and weigh the pros and cons in each case, it is because they want to choose the best course of action. For them, consistency is not always a virtue, but they are never rudderless in their choices, nor are they wishy-washy in their commitments. They do have a moral and political compass in defense of the principles of open society which include freedom, toleration, pluralism, limited power, and the rule of law.
Rule number three. Remember that moderation is much more than a simple trait of character, state of mind, or disposition! It has important political and institutional dimensions that make our representative government work. Moderates tend to favor complex political systems, checks and balances, judicial review, and the like.
Rule number four. Remember that extremists think rigidly by the book; moderates prefer to think politically! They are pragmatics spirits, not perfectionists. Moderates start working with the world as is, not as it should be; while they strive for peace, they don’t forget to prepare for war
Rule number five. Keep the lines of dialogue open with your opponents even when that dialogue is uncomfortable! Organize at the grass-roots level to pursue modest but precise goals. In so doing, you will manage to put pressure on elected politicians and keep them accountable. And you will serve as a much-needed example of civility in a time of ideological intransigence.
Rule number six. Do not espouse a black-and-white vision of the world! Moderates are unique because they feel and understand well the opposite sides of life. That is why moderates never become dogmatic zealots obsessed with purity, axes of evil, red lines, or litmus tests. Their universe is not divided between the forces of light and of darkness. Theirs is a world made of many shades of gray (less than fifty, to be sure!). For they know that gray, too, can be beautiful!
Rule number seven. Remember that moderation takes patience, discernment, and courage! It implies a complex balancing act, not unlike the art of tightrope walking. It entails strong determination and a degree of non-conformism. But it also demands intuition, art, foresight, judgment, and flexibility.
Rule number eight. Be prepared to have a tough skin! No particular belief hurts moderates, no matter how different from their own it may be. Moderates admit that all issues have more than one side. As a result, they refuse to interpret events in light of any single value or principle, as extremists do.
Rule number nine. Do not avoid partisanship and do not fear polarization! There is always a market for moderation, even in tough times, for great opportunities always accompany crises. Moderates can, in fact, benefit from tensions, conflict, and contradictions if they know how to handle them. Their exposure to the crossfire of radical opponents can stimulate their imagination. It prompts them to develop original solutions and responses to social and political crises.
Rule number ten. Be prepared to make timely and necessary compromises! Moderates who think politically rather than ideologically work across party lines to facilitate agreements for the common good and prevent the country from slipping into anarchy. In so doing, they help preserve the fragile balance between diverse social forces and political interests. Their adjustments and compromises may be small and unheroic, and they rarely fit any party line. Yet, if they are not rotten compromises, they are often enough to save the country from ruin.
As such, moderates form a party without banners that our country badly needs today if we want politicians to shake hands again and govern effectively. Although this party has seen its stock going down in the last years, it should play a crucial role the months ahead, as our representatives will begin charting a new course away from the gridlock of the recent past.
Moderates, stand up! Your time has arrived!