Is it possible to combine pragmatism and moderate political engagement with a grain of skepticism and a robust commitment to rational discourse and civility? I ask this question from the perspective of someone who believes in the power of moderation, but does not think that moderation is the only answer to our nation’s many problems.

A similar question was asked five decades ago in a different context by Saul Alinsky, whose teachings influenced entire generations of community activists.

At first sight, it might seem odd to invoke Alinsky’s name when thinking about moderation. Yet those who believe that what we need today is a form of pragmatic moderation might stand to gain a lot by reflecting on his pragmatic primer for realistic radicals, Rules for Radicals. There, he made a compelling case for a pragmatic and realistic form of social activism that starts from how the world is, not where we would like it to be. He was a no-nonsense reformer who sought to work within the system while ruthlessly denouncing corruption at all levels and calling for his fellow citizens to rethink the meaning of the American dream.

What would be the rules for realistic and pragmatic moderates in our current political climate?  Here are a few suggestions, drawing upon my recent book, Faces of Moderation, and a previous intervention on the Penn Press blog.

  1. Moderation is an eclectic, complex, and misunderstood virtue that challenges our political imagination (which is accustomed to stark contrasts and the classic left/right dichotomy). It should not be reduced to a simple trait of character, state of mind, or disposition. There is a moderation appropriate to citizens (working with each other to achieve common goals), one that applies to leaders (entrusted with steering the ship of the state), and one that applies to institutions and constitutions. Moreover, moderation can apply to ends or to means, and the two meanings must not be confounded. Similarly, even within revolutionary movements one can find moderate ideas and actors. That is why it is inappropriate to refer to moderation in the abstract, as most conventional definitions and images of moderation do. They often build a straw man that fails to capture the distinctiveness and unique nature of this virtue.
  1. While they have been viewed as opportunistic or weak, in reality, moderates are principled and strong. While they do not believe that consistency (rigidly understood) is always a virtue, moderates are not rudderless in their choices, nor lukewarm in their commitments. They do have a moral and political compass, but choose to affirm it in a moderate way. Thus, moderation is neither indecisiveness nor a synonym of powerlessness. Finally, moderation is not a mere defense or endorsement of the status quo; in reality, moderation can often be a powerful instrument for change, even if there will always be impostors posing as moderates whose conservative agenda is anything but moderate.
  1. Moderates defend the principles of an open society, civil dialogue, and constitutionalism. They have a primary commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive community that comprises people with whom they disagree. Moderates are partisans of change and reform, but they also believe in balance and proportion; that is why they are concerned about rising inequality as much as about intolerance and ideological intransigence. In general, moderates are skeptical of simplicity and uniformity in political affairs and tend to favor complex political systems and hybrid solutions, including checks and balances, veto power, judicial review, subsidiarity, and federalism, among other things. Moderates favor “neutral power” (as a moderating power above all others), polycentricity, and competing centers of power rather than centralization. [1]
  1. Moderation presupposes a skeptical political style. In general, moderates do not consider themselves authoritative voices or moral authorities entitled to talk down to their fellow citizens; they lack the assurance that would allow them to settle everything forever. They are aware of human fallibility, ignorance, and the role of uncertainty in political affairs. This is why moderates keep an open mind and try to feel and understand the opposite sides of life. In politics, they are skeptical of all those who confidently talk about purity, axes of evil, red lines, and litmus tests, or claim that they alone can fix things. Rather than insisting on purity of principle, moderates encourage all sides to make timely and reasonable concessions that can advance the public good, broadly defined.
  1. Consequently, the universe as seen by moderates is not divided between the forces of good and the forces of evil. It is rather a world made of many shades of gray and lots of nuances, a world that is full of contradictions and tensions, many of which can never be fully resolved. Moderates refuse to simplify reality and know that most political issues have more than one side. Hence, they resist the temptation to define a single best way or offer a one-dimensional definition of the political good; instead, they carefully examine facts and are prepared to modify their beliefs when the facts themselves change. As a result, unlike extremists, moderates are reluctant to interpret political events and policy proposals in light of any single value or principle, whether equality, justice, diversity, or liberty. Instead, they claim the right to hesitate and weigh the pros and cons in order to choose the best possible course of action in each case, given the specific and ever-changing circumstances under which they operate.
  1. Moderates can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, not just the center. They are aware, in the words of Burke, that the activity of governing is founded on compromise and barter: “We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others.” [2] Moderates are always ready to work across party lines to facilitate agreements for the common good and prevent the country from slipping into chaos. In so doing, they help preserve the fragile balance between diverse social forces and political interests. That is, they prefer to think politically rather than by the book, and they don’t go searching for perfection. Instead of asking whether the end justifies the means, pragmatic moderates prefer to ask, “Does this particular end justify this particular means”? [3]
  1. Moderates believe in the power of dialogue and critical reflection, are committed to civility, and oppose violence. They keep the lines of dialogue open with their opponents even when dialogue becomes difficult or uncomfortable. In so doing, they serve as an example of civility and magnanimity to those who resort to hyperbole, deceptive soundbites, and invective. Moderates refrain from exaggerating disputes or differences. While they defend their ideas and values, they do not close off all space for others’ positions. Moderates do not fly from extreme to extreme, and if they change parties, they do not regard the party they left behind with animosity and scorn.
  1. Moderates do not avoid partisanship, conflict, or controversy. Nor do they seek an easy and superficial overlapping consensus among different groups. As the Italian political philosopher Norberto Bobbio once put it, the task of the moderate is to sow the seeds of doubt about common ideas, challenge received myths, and dogmas. [4] For moderates recognize that an open society cannot function without struggle and contestation. A frictionless world is an abstract one; in the real world, movement or change cannot occur “without that abrasive friction of conflict.” [5] Moderates know that the institutions of an open society can, at best, create an imperfect form of harmony in dissonance, and can never aspire to achieve a full agreement on the meaning of the good society. That is why moderates try to make the most of the tensions, conflicts, and contradictions that make up the real world. The most they can aspire to is a decent form of “reasonable inconsistency,” in the words of an exemplary moderate, the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. [6]
  1. Moderation is a difficult, rare, and sometimes risky virtue. It takes patience, discernment, and courage to stick to moderation when everyone around you demands a radical course of action and sees the world through Manichaean lenses. Moderation presupposes forming alliances and working with people who see the world through different eyes than you. It is no coincidence that Albert Camus spoke about “the extenuating intransigence of moderation” and commented on the moderates’ rebelliousness. Being a moderate resembles walking a tightrope: this demands not only intuition, foresight, judgment, and flexibility, but also a great deal of courage and thick skin. Moderates cannot let any particular challenging belief or opponent hurt them. Like a tightrope walker, they must keep their eyes fixed on the target ahead of them.
  1. Appearances notwithstanding, there is always a market for moderation, even in tough times. Democratic regimes cannot properly function without compromise, bargaining, and moderation; this can be a winning card if played wisely. Although it may not be sufficient to create a mass movement, moderation has the great advantage of being an optimistic virtue tailored to human nature, one that aims neither too high nor too low. Because it is neither a fixed ideology nor a party platform, moderation enables different people from many walks of life to take effective action in defense of freedom, toleration, pluralism, limited power, and the rule of law. For example, the Charter ’77 was a moderate dissident movement based on the what one of its leaders, the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, called the “power of the powerless.” [7] At the heart of the Solidarity movement in Poland were the moderate concepts of self-limiting revolution and evolutionism [8]. Both movements effectively challenged the power of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet rule there.


Lessons Learned from the Rules

Can there be a party of moderates, one might ask?

At first sight, moderates form, as it were, a party without a banner; to speak of a real party of moderates may therefore seem counterintuitive. Yet those who wonder whether moderation can offer a governing platform might want to study the case of the Moderates Party in Sweden (Moderata Samlingspartiet). Founded in 1904, the party took its current name in 1969 and has been part of various coalitions in government. In 1991, its leader, Carl Bildt, became the country’s Prime Minister, a feat repeated in 2006 by Fredryk Reinfeldt (he was reelected in 2010, when the party won 30 percent of all votes, and governed until 2014). The Moderates Party has traditionally defended liberal-conservative policies meant to promote small and efficient government, low taxes and inflation, and small budget deficits.  

For anyone who wants to live in a decent society, moderation remains an indispensable virtue. Moderates are our unsung heroes. They perform a vital role in our society, even if it often goes unacknowledged. In a world in which partisan bias has become so strong that it acts as a kind of prism for selecting (or distorting) only those facts that suit one’s preferences, moderates seek to oppose the exaggerations of all groups and parties. Without them, as John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” [9]  

Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes was released by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2016.


  1.  I borrow the term “neutral power” from Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics (1815) and the concept of polycentricity from the writings of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, founders of the Bloomington School.
  1. The quotation is from Burke’s famous speech on conciliation with America published in Edmund Burke, Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. Ian Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 247.
  1. Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1981; first ed. 1971)., p. 24.
  1.  Norberto Bobbio, A Political Life, trans. Allan Cameron (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), p. 79.
  1.  Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p. 21.
  1. Leszek Kołakowski, “In Praise of Inconsistency,” in his Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 216.
  1. This is the title of Vaclav Havel’s famous essay on this topic published in 1977.
  1. I have commented on these concepts in Faces of Moderation, pp. 195-203.

      9. The Political Writings of John Adams, ed. George A. Peek (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), p. 89.