November 6, 2016


Moderation and the Preservation of Democracy (Carson Holloway, November 2nd, 2016, Public Discourse)

We don't need more such partisan calls for moderation--extremists condemning other extremists for their immoderate politics. What we really need is something more demanding but also more fruitful: a quest for political moderation that transcends the partisan and ideological conflicts of the moment and seeks a loftier perspective. We can never achieve moderation as long as our minds are dominated by the political hopes and fears of the moment. Such moderation can emerge only from serious reflection on the nature of our regime and its permanent needs, which requires us to ascend to the level of the statesman and the political philosopher.

This much needed enterprise--serious thought in the service of true moderation--is advanced by Paul Carrese's excellent study, Democracy in Moderation: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Sustainable Liberalism. This book is, in the first place, an impressive work of scholarship. It explores a neglected question: what is the role of philosophic and political moderation in building modern democracy? It seeks insight into this question by considering not only the great modern philosophic proponents of moderation, Montesquieu and Tocqueville, but also an exemplary statesman, George Washington. It asks what a wise moderation would look like not only in domestic politics but also in foreign policy. Finally, it carries on, in its footnotes, a wide-ranging engagement with the scholarship on these great figures. The careful reader will come away from the book understanding not only Carrese's arguments, but alternative interpretations as well.

Much more important, however, is the book's defense of moderation as necessary to preserving the free and democratic regime we have inherited. Here is where Carrese's work should be of interest not only to scholars but also to thoughtful citizens and responsible statesmen. By linking moderation to a proper respect for the complexity of our regime, and to the hope of making it sustainable, he shows us that moderation is a high form of wisdom.

Moderation in its most obvious sense--the sense famously explicated by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics--regulates our use of bodily pleasures. Taken in this ordinary sense, moderation might at first appear to be a rather pedestrian and unimpressive virtue. It is the virtue of the person who doesn't eat too much.

On reflection, however, we can see that even this commonplace form of moderation relies on and puts into practice a certain wisdom about the nature of the good. The moderate man knows that food is good--or that the sensations of pleasure experienced in eating are good. He also knows, however, that there is some other good, or other goods, that must limit his pursuit of these pleasures. Moderation, then, even in its ordinary sense, depends on an appreciation of the multifaceted nature of the good.

Carrese shows us that this is true of political moderation as well. Just as ordinary moderation depends on our realization that a good life involves a variety of good activities and pleasures that must be kept in balance, so political moderation depends on our realization that a good society depends on a variety of institutions, mores, and beliefs that must be kept in balance. The political moderation that we so badly need, Carrese teaches, requires a proper appreciation of the complexity of our free, democratic society. It cannot be reduced to a single principle. Those who try to do so, thinking they are perfecting it, are in fact laboring to destroy it.

...but the actual differences between the parties are generally trivial.

Posted by at November 6, 2016 2:18 PM