January 27, 2019



Who needs moderation today? At first sight, the present moment does not seem to be ripe for moderation. As long as we live in echo chambers and democratic norms are being defied and undermined by politicians who exhibit erratic patterns of behavior and an insatiable appetite for domination, embracing moderation seems to be a self-defeating course of action. As a political theorist who has been researching this elusive virtue for over a decade, I have learned two important things about it.1 First, writing about moderation often amounts to a silent condemnation to solitude and marginality. This virtue never makes the headlines in our cable news world and it is conspicuously absent from the agenda of many politicians and parties. We know who the lions and foxes of the world are, but the moderates, whoever they may be, rarely appear on our radar screens. Second, the conventional image of moderation as a weak and ineffective virtue deserves to be challenged and revised. Edmund Burke was aware that moderation had often been stigmatized as "the virtue of cowards and compromise as the prudence of traitors." And yet, he still regarded it as the virtue of noble and superior minds. "In all changes in the state," Burke claimed, "moderation is a virtue, not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue."2

One may wonder why Burke's defense of moderation seems so alien to many of us today. Don't we need this virtue in our current political world to countervail the influence of misguided ambition and curb the insatiable desire for (more) power and domination? This is arguably a rhetorical question. That is why I have been encouraged by the sudden revival of interest in a virtue which, for all its limitations, remains essential to the smooth functioning of our representative institutions. Jerry Taylor's essay "The Alternative to Ideology" (October 29, 2018) and the Niskanen Center policy essay "The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes" (December 2018) are bold manifestos for moderation that highlight the pitfalls of ideological thinking and the dangers of the "monomaniacal pursuit of a single idea" at all costs.3 Both texts extend a timely invitation to those who are not fearful of swimming against the current to rediscover the nuances of a complex, contested, and often misunderstood virtue. They are likely to raise some eyebrows, perhaps even trigger some interesting controversies. We can only hope that they will start a larger debate on an important virtue in scarce supply in Washington and beyond. Here I would like to contribute to this conversation by summarizing a few lessons I have learned while studying moderation in historical perspective.

Although moderation is an old concept with deep roots in classical political thought and in various religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism), it is still surrounded by misunderstanding and suspicion. For many, it is an unappealing word that carries the connotation of weakness, timidity, and indecisiveness. On this view, moderation is practiced only by soft-hearted individuals unable to hold firm opinions or make strong decisions. Others equate moderation with opportunism and see it as a synonym of mediocrity and pettiness. According to this view, moderates lack moral principles, endorse dubious compromises, and/or defend an unsavory center devoid of substance. If one is brave enough to truly believe in something, the argument goes, one cannot (and should not) be a moderate.

Another opinion is that moderation can never be truly radical or democratic enough because it lacks a clear moral or political compass. According to this claim, moderation amounts in practice to endorsing the status quo or condoning, willingly or unwillingly, various forms of injustice in the name of a deceptive modus vivendi. Those who embrace such an objectionable form of moderation do not really care about addressing injustice and reducing inequalities. This was "the moderation of the white man" criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail (1963). An additional paradox might be mentioned here. When the public acknowledges the value of moderation, its support for the general concept is often greater than support for moderation on any particular issue, be it government size and spending, health care, immigration, taxation, or abortion. If and when people endorse moderation, they do it on the issues about which they care the least. On those topics which are central to their beliefs, their support for moderation is much weaker.

If anything, all these views of moderation prove that it is quite common to be pessimistic or cynical about the chances of moderation today. That is why it is important to challenge the conventional image of moderation by showing that it is a complex virtue which has a surprisingly radical side, often neglected by its critics and friends alike. If moderation can sometimes be a mask for cowardice and reaction, it can also be an effective means for promoting democratic reforms and preserving the institutional framework of free and open societies. Far from being a philosophy for weak souls, moderation is, in fact, a rare and difficult virtue for courageous minds. It implies a good dose of courage, nonconformism, and eclecticism, which explains why it is so difficult to acquire and practice moderation.

The misunderstanding of moderation is at the core of the recent Uncommon Knowledge, where Peter Robinson, Boyden Gray and Haley Barbour discussed the continuity of the Reagan and GHW Bush administrations.  Indeed, historians will look back at the period from Jimmy Carter to Barrack Obama as one undifferentiated political moment.

Posted by at January 27, 2019 10:10 AM