Rediscovering the Virtues of Political Moderation

This virtue of moderation (which time and situations will clearly distinguish from the counterfeits of pusillanimity and indecision) is the virtue only of superior minds. It requires a deep courage, and full of reflection, to be temperate when the voice of multitudes (the specious mimic of fame and reputation) passes judgment against you.

—Edmund Burke

“American conservatism stands at a crossroads,” notes Peter Berkowitz in his latest book, Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). “In moving forward, it would do well to study the high points of American conservatism over the last seventy years, which confirm Burke’s teaching that conservation and correction of liberty depend on reconciling liberty with tradition, order, and virtue” (pp. 77-78). This welcome call to sobriety comes at a point in time when the Republican Party is searching for a new identity and direction as it becomes obvious that its electoral base is shrinking and its unity is fading away. Some went as far as to argue that if Reagan were to run for office today, he would probably lose in the primaries to more radical candidates. While Reagan embraced a free market, anti-statist conservative agenda, he (and his team) also acknowledged the carefully circumscribed need for redirecting government action toward proper goals, including action in several key areas such as immigration policy and welfare reform.

Some pundits on the extreme left identify the Republicans with the “party of stupidity,” or simply dismiss the conservative temper as reactionary and anti-democratic [1]. Such exaggerations are both unwarranted and unlikely to promote a civil and pragmatic discourse, to say the least. For it is unreasonable to dismiss or vilify an entire tradition that has played such an important role in defining the American foreign and domestic agenda during the Cold War. This rich American tradition includes influential books such as William Buckley Jr.’s God & Man at Yale (1951), Whittaker Chamber’s Witness (1952), Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953), Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (1962), or Irving Kristol’s “What is a ‘Neoconservative’?” (1976) as well as prominent politicians such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, or organizations such as the Rippon Society.

A distinguished political theorist who has previously taught at Harvard and George Mason University and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, Peter Berkowitz is far from being alone in expressing deep concern about the future of conservatism in America. Such laments have, in fact, become all too common in the mass-media since John McCain’s failed presidential bid in 2008 and in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s equally unsuccessful attempt to win the White House last year [2]. A mixture of academic writing and electoral manifesto, Berkowitz’s volume is a timely attempt to rally the conservative base around what he calls “constitutional conservatism” at the core of which lies the virtue of political moderation. The book contains two dense chapters on the political thought of Edmund Burke and The Federalist Papers, followed by two other chapters, a survey of twentieth-century conservatism in America and a chapter sketching an agenda for the future.

Two things make Berkowitz’s book stand out among recent contributions. First, he wants to point out “a way forward” for the conservative movement in America by making his readers rediscover the roots of “constitutional conservatism” (p. 116). He is hopeful that conservatism can have a bright future in America if infused with a good dose of political moderation as embodied in the principles of the U.S. Constitution, Second, Berkowitz makes a strong case for linking conservatism and political moderation and believes that the latter “is a constitutional imperative and a demanding virtue” (p. 117) that we badly need to rediscover and practice today. In so doing, Berkowitz adds his name to the emerging list of authors who have recently published several books on political moderation in an attempt to rescue this rather elusive concept from the neglect into which it has fallen among political theorists and historians.

Five years ago, Kenyon College Professor Harry Clor made a powerful case for moderation as an ethical virtue in On Moderation (Baylor University Press, 2008), followed a year later by Robert C. Calhoon who, in Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries (Cambridge University Press, 2009), wrote insightful pages about the tradition of political moderation in the United States. In the pages of The New York Times, David Brooks has defended political moderation as an indispensable virtue that can help us tackle some of the most pressing issues that we are facing today in our age of intransigent dogmatism and rival claims for justice and liberty. “The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments,” Brooks wrote. “There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory” [3].

Last but not least, in A Virtue for Courageous Minds (Princeton University Press, 2012), I argued that political moderation constitutes a coherent, complex, and diverse tradition of thought, an entire submerged archipelago that still waits to be (re)discovered and properly explored. This “archipelago” consists of various islands represented by a wide array of ideas and modes of argument and action. Moderation, I claimed, allows us to defend better the pluralism of ideas, principles, and interests essential to modern freedom. While moderation is thought to be a conservative virtue, I argued that it is better described as an eclectic virtue, well suited to guide us through the complex problems of our age.

Although theorizing moderation is not a priority for Berkowitz in his latest book, a few words on this issue are in order here. In spite of its egregious genealogy and contemporary relevance, moderation has been curiously understudied by political theorists and historians of political thought and has been often underplayed by politicians. Five decades ago, Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed before losing big time in the presidential elections of 1964: “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This statement is surprising since political moderation is the touchstone of democracy which cannot function without compromise and bargaining. Yet, moderation remains a concept that challenges our imagination and appears as a fuzzy virtue which defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Moderation has often been regarded as the virtue of tepid, middling, shy, timorous, indecisive, and lukewarm individuals, incapable of generating heroic acts or great stories.

What makes moderation a difficult object of study is not only the virtual impossibility of building a “theory” of moderation, but also the fact that moderates have worn many “masks” over time that it may be difficult to relate to each other (the prudent man, the trimmer, the pluralist, the critic of zealotry, fanaticism, and enthusiasm, the eclectic, or “committed observer”). There were also political movements that claimed to follow the principles of moderation: the Prague Spring movement of 1968 (“a revolt of moderates,” as Milan Kundera once claimed); the Solidarity movement and the “self-limiting” revolution in Poland (as defined by Adam Michnik); the Charter ‘77 in the former Czechoslovakia; Ordoliberalism (in post WWII Germany) or the “Third Way” (in the United Kingdom under Tony Blair’s premiership).

It is not easy to figure out what (if anything) all these characters and movements have in common. What does it mean to be a moderate voice in political and public life? What are the virtues and limitations of moderation? What are the characteristics of the moderate mind? How do moderate minds operate compared to more radical spirits? What are they seeking in politics and how do they view political life? To what extent is moderation contingent upon the existence and flourishing of (various forms of) political radicalism? Is moderation primarily a style of argument that varies according to circumstances? Or does it imply a strong ethical-normative component? If so, what distinguishes it from other forms of argument? Are there any common elements of the “moderate” style? Or, as its critics have often maintained, is moderation merely a matter of background and personal temperament?

Peter Berkowitz touches upon some of these questions without seeking to offer a theory of political moderation. Simply put, his thesis is that moderation is a conservative virtue with a distinguished American heritage. Berkowitz devotes several pages (pp. 64-72) to discussing the institutionalization of political moderation in the context of The Federalist Papers and notes the strong relationship between political moderation and the balance and separation of powers as illustrated by Federalist 47-49, 51, 55, 70, 78, and 85. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and their disciples have been largely successful in balancing those principles that must remain critical to the conservation and correction of liberty. Yet, their achievements have been far from perfect and should not be seen as definitive. Berkowitz applauds the Founding Fathers for their enlightened “understanding of the unceasing need to adjust and readjust, balance and rebalance, calibrate and recalibrate” (p. 73) and he goes on to suggest that the balancing task of political moderation is an endless and complex one, mirroring the complexity of our social, political, economic, cultural, and religious values and principles. Not surprisingly, he argues, “it takes political moderation to appreciate the Constitution’s institutionalization of political moderation” (p. 74). At the same time, “it also takes political moderation to appreciate the Constitution’s incompleteness and unfinished work” (p. 74).

Berkowitz’s moderation, informed by Burke’s views on this topic, is a muscular virtue that does not shy away from making tough but necessary compromises. Thus, political moderation,” he remarks, “should not be confused with the absence of strong passion” (p. 15). The long and elegant chapter devoted to Burke is a must read for any conservative politician and activist who seeks to take a stand in present political debates. Berkowitz comments on the complex and seminal relationship between prudence and moderation which is essential for reconciling the claims of liberty, rights, authority, and tradition which, in a free society, frequently pull in opposing directions and create enduring antinomies. In the end, according to Berkowitz, moderation is a means to achieving political and civil liberty: “Political moderation is propelled by a passion to strike the most reasonable balance among worthy but incomplete ends for the sake of liberty” (p. 16). On this view, the final value is liberty rather than moderation.

As I argued elsewhere [4], moderation might also be seen as the supreme virtue of legislators, as Montesquieu claimed in Book XXIX of The Spirit of the Laws. Far from being a synonym of meekness, it is, in fact, a difficult virtue for courageous minds, and one that cannot be studied in abstract, but only as instantiated in various historical and political contexts and discourses. In other words, there can be no objective theory of moderation outside of particular situations. There is something about the nature of moderation that can only be captured through embodiment in the specific political and historical context and actors. The principles chosen by moderates have been—and will always be— inseparable from their concrete choices and decisions regarding certain actions performed in specific political, social, and historical contexts. What is moderate in one context and period may significantly differ from another. More importantly, as already mentioned, moderation has many faces connected to each other. It is much more than a simple trait of character, a certain state of mind, or a disposition. In addition to its ethical meaning, moderation also has a political and institutional dimension, being linked to balance (and separation) of powers, social and political pluralism, and mixed government.

Many of these ideas are touched upon in Peter Berkowitz’s book. As he reminds us by drawing on The Federalist, political moderation rests on a bold constitutional vision based on a complex institutional architecture. As such, moderation requires great skills, strong determination, a great deal of courage, and (often) a good dose of non-conformism. That is why the majority of moderate politicians are not moral chameleons who seek personal advancement. They are “trimmers” who try to adjust the cargo and sails of the ship of state to keep it on an even keel. These adjustments may be small and unheroic, and they may not always fit the “party” line (as in the case of Olympia Snowe, for example), but they often save the state from anarchy or ruin. Moderate political action requires balancing and weighing various principles in each situation rather than merely resorting to a single set of universal principles or values defined by an ideology. Moderation presupposes not only reasoning and deliberation but also intuition, foresight, and flexibility for which there can be no single or simple formula.

It is significant that Berkowitz has not written this book primarily for academics interested mostly in obscure conceptual distinctions and detached from politics. His audience is larger and he hopes to contribute to a timely and important debate on the future of conservatism in America. To his credit, Berkowitz is aware that moderation is neithera panacea nor a substitute for pragmatic partisanship. After all, politics cannot function without the latter and most talk about the virtues of bipartisanship is probably exaggerated. In politics, we rarely have to choose between good and evil, and quite often are not presented with a choice between what is acceptable and what is detestable. He espouses a moderate tone when criticizing both the immoderate critics and partisans of the U.S. Constitution and is careful not to offend those groups that might contribute to a revival of conservatism in the U.S. This is how one could explain his softness on the Tea Party and vagueness on influential populist politicians such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Rick Perry. Judging by Berkowitz’s intellectual taste, one can surmise that he has little patience for their immoderate style. He believes that one of the clearest signs of the current crisis of conservatism in the U.S. lies in the silencing of moderate voices that have been slowly confined to irrelevance by the rise of radical groups within the Republican Party.

To be sure, moderates have not fared well lately in American politics broadly construed. This became obvious when former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) announced that she would 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 $787bn stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration in 2009 that was opposed by the majority of her republican colleagues on ideological grounds. In last year’s republican primaries, Mitt Romney worked hard to defend himself against accusations of being a “moderate,” a label that finally made him unappealing in the eyes of highly partisan Republican voters whom he tried to sway by describing himself “a severely conservative governor.” Last but not least, Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar lost in the 2012 primary elections to Richard Mourdock whose radical position on abortion and rape made him lose in the November elections. The examples of Lugar, Romney, and Snowe show that politicians who are thinking about running for office and winning in future elections might want to distinguish themselves from those who practice moderation. The recent growing partisanship in the Congress has silenced moderates on both aisles and weakened their appeal and base. Moderates’ willingness to compromise and work with the other side has put them out of step with their own parties and decreased their chances of being (re)elected in future elections. The retirement from the Senate of six moderates last year (two Republicans, four Democrats) underscored the little stock many voters seem to place in this virtue after all.

Peter Berkowitz endorses “constitutional conservatism” as a middle ground between social conservatism and libertarianism and considers post World War II American conservatism as a “lesson of moderation” (p. 82) that successfully defended the open society during the Cold War (surprisingly though, he underplays the legacy of President Eisenhower and is largely silent on the errors of the Nixon Administration). He does admit that “conservatism in America comprises a family of rival and worthy principles that require accommodation—to each other, to the exigencies of the moment, and to the changing habits and opinions of the American people” (pp. 5-6). By drawing on Irving Kristol’s writings, he gives neoconservatives a reason to be proud of their heritage, while also calling upon them to share the ground with social conservatives and libertarians. At the same time, Berkowitz also points out how much things have changed in the last decade or so and he seems particularly disenchanted with the legacy of Newt Gingrich who “left conservatism dazed and confused” (p. 108) or with that of the Religious Right which has attempted to use the federal and state governments to enforce the traditional understanding of sex, marriage, and the family.

Too many republicans, Berkowitz suggests, define themselves itself less by what they want to conserve than by what they wish to destroy and this aggressive mindset, he adds, is both unrealistic and counter-productive in the long term. Berkowitz acknowledges the complexity of fiscal issues today (p. 102) while rejecting the radicalism of those conservatives whose “attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities” (p. 114). Regardless of our beliefs, Berkowitz wryly notes, “the era of big government is here to stay” and conservatives “should retire misleading talk of small government. Instead, they should think and speak in terms of limited government” (p. 114).

This is a reasonable agenda that, unfortunately, has few chances of gaining ground within the GOP (or the Democratic Party) these days. One fears that moderate voices such as Peter Berkowitz and David Brooks are likely to be dismissed as too soft or unconnected to the ever shifting reality on the ground. Yet, precisely because moderation may be an unpopular virtue in American politics today, it is high time that conservatives (and Democrats) take a new look at this elusive and difficult virtue, one that, in Montesquieu’s words, represents the supreme virtue of all legislators. Political moderation, Berkowitz reminds us, is part of the conservative tradition (p. 9) and must continue to make its voice heard. Several decades ago, the rise of the Rippon Society (not mentioned by Berkowitz, but discussed at length in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule or Ruin) gave moderation a much needed voice within the GOP. Lee Auspitz even put forward a manifesto for moderation which, alas, was published in the Playboy in 1970 and had little political impact.

While I sympathize with many of Berkowitz’s conclusions and his critique of purists in both camps, I also feel compelled to point to two important issues on which our views seem to diverge to some extent. In my opinion, moderation is above all an eclectic virtue rather a conservative one although I do admit, of course, the existence of a strong relationship between moderation and conservatism. Furthermore, I draw a starker distinction between moderation as an ethical virtue and a set of constitutional and institutional choices and prefer to emphasize, again in Montesquieu’s footsteps, the indeterminacy of the “political good.” As such, moderation is neither a fixed ideology nor a merely positional virtue depending solely on the vitality and agenda of the extremes. Moderation is a difficult and eclectic virtue which is not for all seasons and all people. A moderate party platform may or may not be an oxymoron, but one thing is clear. Without moderation, as John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Peter Berkowitz’s book is a timely and refreshing reminder of how right Adams was and how much we need political moderation today, along with intelligent and pragmatism and enlightened partisanship.

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[1] See, for example, the recent (deeply flawed) book by Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind (Oxford University Press, 2011) which makes sweeping claims and ignores the diversity of the conservative camp. A much more nuanced critique of the conservative rhetoric can be found in Albert O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction (Harvard University Press, 1991).

[2] See, for example, Sam Tannenhaus, The Death of Conservatism (Random House, 2009), Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule or Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Sidney Blumenthal The Strange Death of Republican America (Union Square Press, 2008). These books offer three different (and provocative) accounts of the demise of the Republican Party.

[3] David Brooks, “What Moderation Means,” op-ed, The New York Times, October 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/opinion/brooks-what-moderation-means.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121026&_r=0

[4] Aurelian Craiutu, A Virtue for Courageous Minds (Princeton University Press, 2012), chapter 1 and Epilogue, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9738.html