Reviewing Bertrand Russell’s Power in early 1939, George Orwell wrote: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” At that time, Europe was about to engage on a dangerous and suicidal path and restating the obvious was the duty of decent individuals who sought to stop the avalanche of murderous ideologies. Orwell’s words still ring true today. Restating the obvious—assuming, of course, we can agree on what is evident—is again the duty of anyone who cares about the future of our democratic institutions and way of life.
Wherever we turn our eyes, we encounter people who are intransigent and overconfident in the truth of their beliefs. They are full of zeal for their own tribe and hatred toward others. They prefer incrimination and denunciation to civil debate and are opposed to compromise and negotiation with those whose views they dislike. Not surprisingly, some of us have begun to ask ourselves whether a nation that is so divided and polarized as ours can survive in the long run. Recent remarks about a possible national divorce have not gone unnoticed.
The hyperbolic tone of these views reflects the increasing uneasiness many may feel about the future of the unique American experiment in self-government. In the eyes of many, moderating our political discourse in order to find common ground will not make us capable of addressing our current challenges. Even worse, for them, moderation is the problem rather than the solution.
Now, it would be hard to deny that moderation is not an appealing topic at first sight. Many dismiss it and equate it with treason, appeasement, and complicity with evil. They believe that anyone who embraces moderation is condemned to be a loser on the political stage. Young radicals think that political moderation lacks a magnetic idea and cannot bring about the necessary change. For them, being a radical is the opposite of being a moderate, and moderation is only another way of defending an unjust status quo.
In Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals (to be published by Cambridge University Press on October 12), I challenge this view by constructing an imaginary dialogue with two young radicals from the left and right who do not believe in the virtue of moderation. I argue that appearances notwithstanding, “radical” moderation it not an oxymoron; it can be a successful card in today’s polarized world if it is played wisely. It may also be a sign and source of strength and lucidity.
This is one of those old truths that it is important to restate today. The lack of attention to–and interest in–political moderation is not accidental but reveals the little faith many have in this virtue today. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Burke, and Tocqueville, to name only a few, thought otherwise. They praised moderation as the “supreme virtue of legislators” and “the silken string that runs through the pearl-chain of all virtues.” Their writings show that moderation has no lower age limit and is a virtue that everyone, citizens and leaders alike, can and should practice almost anywhere and anytime. They show that moderation can be a strong and muscular virtue with multiple faces: epistemological, moral, constitutional, political, and religious.
As an eclectic virtue, moderation can be found on all sides of the political spectrum and contains both liberal and conservative elements. Properly understood, moderation is much more than the proverbial golden mean between the extremes or the center. It is embedded in a complex institutional framework that includes, among others, balance and separation of powers, bicameralism, judicial review, federalism, polycentricity, and subsidiarity.
The political vision undergirding moderation is often neglected or misunderstood. Moderates are inspired by a few big ideas such as pluralism, solidarity in diversity, trimming, eclecticism, and dialogue across political differences. They seek to enlarge public sympathy for the common good and help solve deep disagreements in a civil and peaceful manner. As eclectic spirits performing a balancing act, moderates do not seek to serve the agenda of any party. Frustrated with the dogmatism, hyper-polarization, and immoderation that dominate the public and political scene, they try to see “not differently, but farther than parties,” to use Tocqueville’s words.
That is truer today perhaps than ever before. Parties are concerned with maintaining their inﬂuence or gaining power tomorrow. Moderates are concerned about the long-term future and refuse to think ideologically. Moderation is not a party platform that defines a single (best) way as a panacea for our social and political problems. But it can be a ﬁghting creed, based on the firm belief that we cannot afford to bargain away the values of the liberal democracy and open society we have inherited from our forefathers. Instead, we must be prepared to courageously fight for their principles when they are endangered by the rise of extremism and fanaticism.
Moreover, there is also a distinctive style and ethos of moderation characterized by modesty and humility, prudence, civility, realism, and a sense of proportions and fallibility. Moderates refuse to politicize everything, allowing people the privacy necessary to protect their dignity as human beings. They have the courage to be eclectic and reject the dubious arithmetic of easy ideological classifications. Moderates also search for flaws in their own beliefs, not only in the ideas of their adversaries and critics. Only in this way they may become aware of the reasonableness (and unreasonableness) of their opponents and grow less dogmatic and cocksure of their own views.
As such, moderates have their own way of dreaming big, while resisting the temptation of utopianism and sectarianism. They do not think that it is in their power to begin the world over again. But they believe that to maintain their free way of life, they should burst out of their bubbles and echo chambers and work hard to rebuild civic bridges. Their task is to remind us of what unites rather than what separates us. Moderates try to build new capacities and capabilities and work with people’s existing resources, helping them maximize their own opportunities at the local level. They start from “seeing like a citizen” and want to empower people bottom-up. That is a genuinely democratic platform, a truly inspiring and magnetic idea that can help build civic bridges essential to democratic governance.
Is that enough, you might ask, to save our liberal democracy? Nobody can tell for sure. Probably not. But those like me, born on the other (“wrong”) side of the Iron Curtain, know well what the lack of political moderation entails. History shows that, far from being an uninspiring virtue for weak minds, moderation is, in fact, a powerful virtue only for courageous minds. It requires a unique set of skills that not everyone possesses. It demands the ability to maintain one’s balance, the willingness to engage in dialogue with adversaries and friends alike, and the wisdom and dexterity to combine the soundest attitudes and principles of all parties, without being a chameleon. Moderation can protect us against utopian expectations and cynical contempt for politics. And that should be no small achievement in our new age of hyper-polarization and anxiety.
Aurelian Craiutu is professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His new book is Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals (Cambridge University Press, 2023) on which this essay is based.
Image credit: Unsplash/Kane Reinholdtsen.
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