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.

The suspicion toward moderation

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 many faces of moderation

But is it legitimate to refer to moderation in the singular? Too often, moderation is assumed to have only one face and is unduly reduced in public debates to a “positional” virtue or a mere political style devoid of substance. Moderation is, in fact, an eclectic virtue with many faces that manifest themselves in matters of practice, judgment, and policy. As such, moderation may not be reduced to a mere question of temperament or character. It presupposes a set of moral values, expresses a series of arguments made in a distinctive style, and implies a set of policy, institutional, and theoretical commitments. It forms an entire archipelago whose “islands” point to various faces of moderation and signify different things. Thus, moderation can be used to designate moderate government; an antidote to zealotry and fanaticism; a disposition to compromise; a “neutral“ or “third” power above all other powers; a political center; or a juste milieu between extremes. None of these connotations exhaust, however, the meaning(s) of moderation.

Studying such a complex virtue poses significant challenges. In order to understand it, we must explore various uses of moderation and the different intentions with which it has been employed over time by a wide range of political actors placed in specific political, social, and cultural contexts. To this effect, it is essential that we examine the embodiment of moderation in specific institutions, constitutions, and practices. There will always be a wide variety among them that should be properly analyzed and explained. Moreover, moderation can be grasped only if placed within a larger conceptual field which includes related synonyms (such as temperance and prudence) and antonyms (such as fanaticism, extremism, or zealotry). In order to understand the worldview of moderates, we must also examine the ideas of those who oppose moderation. Equally important, the wide range of meanings and instantiations of moderation can be best examined during threshold historical periods when conventional ways of thinking about politics and society are being challenged and replaced by new ones. Hence, the study of moderation requires a genuinely interdisciplinary team effort that should bring together scholars and practitioners from various disciplines and fields examining the many facets of this complex virtue. Arguably the most surprising lesson I have learned while studying moderation in the writings of thinkers as diverse as Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Raymond Aron, Norberto Bobbio, or Adam Michnik is that moderation has a distinctively radical side that can be examined through several related lenses.

The realism of moderation

First, moderation is a realistic virtue; moderates start by looking at the world as it is, not as it should be or through an ingenious veil of ignorance. For them, politics and public life are an arena in which material interests coexist with ideas, where self-interest and the desire for power share room with altruism and the desire to serve others. Moderates understand that too often “might makes right,” but they refuse to accept it as the dominant rule of politics. They also appreciate the importance of conflicts and tensions which can bring about necessary changes. Moderates do not fear polarization and partisanship either. If used wisely, in certain contexts, polarization and partisanship can be fruitful and may be instrumental in promoting reforms.

A related aspect of the realism of the moderates is their anti-perfectionism, which leads them to advocate piecemeal reforms. Moderates do not seek miraculous panaceas or quick solutions to complex problems. They understand that in politics, as in life, there are no absolute blueprints or final syntheses. The best we can achieve is a harmony of dissonance and a decent (and fragile) balance between competing values, always under threat from the extremes. Such an anti-perfectionist moderate position was expressed, for example, by no one else than Benjamin Franklin. When asked about the new U.S. Constitution in 1787, he opined: “I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. […] Thus, I consent Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that this is not the best.”4

Against simplification

Second, the radicalism of moderation is illustrated by its principled opposition to all forms of simplification. Here the eclecticism of moderation plays a key role in making moderates reject the false or superficial dichotomies that abound in political life. This is a form of courage that requires swimming against the current and assuming important risks.

Moderates do not have a fixed political truth; they prefer the risk of appearing politically schizoid to becoming fanatic believers in a single dogma. They understand that aligning themselves with the Left or with the Right is often, in the words of Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), “only one of the numberless ways open to man of being an imbecile: both are forms of moral hemiplegia.”5 For moderates, having political opinions is therefore not a matter of embracing an ideology once and for all. It is rather a prudential question of taking the right decisions in various contexts, facing different challenges and constraints.

To illustrate the eclecticism of moderation, we should consider a few dichotomies — market vs. state, left vs. right, capitalism vs. socialism — along with two concepts, decentralization and spontaneous order, central to the vocabulary of classical liberalism. Moderates are reluctant to use these classical oppositions for a very specific reason. They believe that there is no single form of organization that is “good” for all actors and in all circumstances. As a result, in their view, it is essential to always judge contextually rather than according to a single blueprint. Moderates believe that we need to go beyond the simplistic question “market or state” in order to study polycentric forms of governance at various levels in society. In many instances, the most serious problem is the uncritical adoption of a simplistic blueprint seen as the “holy grail” for solving specific social or economic problems.

With regard to decentralization or deregulation, moderates understand well their benefits but stop short of regarding these measures as the key to all our challenges. Other factors should be considered before the benefits of decentralization or deregulation can be properly assessed. Those benefits will appear and materialize only when the actors targeted by reforms are accountable to the citizens they are supposed to serve. Decentralization and deregulation can have perverse effects when this fails to happen. The same applies to the concept of spontaneous order, regarded as the outcome of the free actions of individuals rather than a deliberate plan of a central authority. While moderates understand the importance of this concept, they are also aware that a significant part of our social order involves a good dose of “conscious” design. For them, spontaneous order and institutional design are not incompatible.

Moderation and pluralism

Third, the radicalism of moderation can be highlighted by examining its close relationship with pluralism, another fundamental liberal principle. Moderates refuse to accept any theory or system that seeks to impose one single perspective as the definitive truth. They believe that the world can and should be seen through many windows and viewpoints, none of which may be elevated to rank as the sole criterion of truth. Few things have done more harm in the course of history than the belief on the part of individuals, parties, states, nations or Churches that they are in sole possession of the truth. Such a pretension is wrong above all because life itself is eclectic and irreducible to one single dimension. And so is politics, whether we like it or not.

Consequently, moderates are skeptical toward those who affirm categorically that “capitalism is good,” “liberalism has failed,” “neoliberalism is bad,” etc. Moderates working in an open society find themselves in a perpetual ideological dilemma; they tend to work with a blurred vision of a better world that calls for humility and reinforces a sense of fallibility. This makes them see all principles and values, from liberty and autonomy to equality and justice, in their duality and interplay.

Moderation and change

Fourth, if moderates are anti-perfectionist realists, they are never blind defenders of the status quo, nor are they opposed to change. On the contrary, they push for adjustments and reforms, while also understanding the importance of traditional values and ways of life. Free from the shackles of dogmas, they constantly examine life with a mixture of curiosity, passion, and even a touch of irreverence toward accepted canons. In so doing, they think without banisters and have no need for the security of an ideological umbrella. To them few questions are sacred, and everything is open to questioning. Moderates are always on the lookout for new possibilities for change, suggested either by the course of events or by the actions of others. They never presume that anything is fixed or dictated by the alleged iron laws of history.

Moderates are prepared to use the limited resources at their disposal to advocate for much-needed reforms. But they never forget that change can mean many things to many people. Some moderates may be modernizers willing to take more risks in bringing about change, while others may be more conservatively inclined to protect order, property, and rights in society. Both sets of moderates are aware that most often, the solutions to one set of problems are likely to generate unexpected challenges and open new questions that, in turn, require novel approaches and perspectives. We live in a world in which everything is interrelated and in constant flux and in which human actions have both intended and unintended consequences. Because moderates often live with an inner uncertainty as to whether some of their ideas or actions are right or wrong, they are always inclined to ask questions. They never take anything for granted and are ready to review and revise everything, including their own opinions.

Consider again the example of the U.S. Constitution. Moderates acknowledge that the constitutional text drafted in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago was the outcome of a whole series of compromises and accommodations that bore the stamp of the times and were required by them. It is not surprising that moderates tend to be skeptical toward originalist interpretations of the Constitution. For them, interpreting the latter is not an “either-or” choice between trying to figure out the original intent of the framers and reimagining the constitutional text for the needs of the 21st century. It is a matter of making prudent adjustments required by the new constellations of facts, while maintaining the basic constitutional structure. At the same time, moderates recognize something that more radical minds are reluctant to admit. Liberal and democratic principles sometimes require those who hold them to make concessions to — and strike compromises with — those who follow nonliberal or nondemocratic principles. In the American case, two such nondemocratic principle have been the Senate and the Electoral College, which were devised to bring small and big states together into the Union.

Moderation and compromise

Fifth, in their fight for change, moderates do not fear making necessary compromises and reasonable concessions, which they see as signs of life and potential progress. At the same time, moderates are aware that there are good and rotten compromises, depending not only on the nature of the issue at hand, but also on timing. The window for reasonable compromises is often narrow and cannot be kept open indefinitely. This was certainly Lincoln’s belief in the early 1860s when he came to the conclusion that the time for compromise on slavery had passed and that the southern states had to be challenged on this issue. Good compromises are those that tend to preserve democratic norms and constitutional checks and balances, which function as the necessary guardrails of democracy. For moderates, nothing is too costly when it comes to protecting these guardrails, which alone can secure the stability of the country and allow its resources to develop. They are convinced of the seminal importance of what George Washington called in his Farewell Address, “liberal allowances, mutual forbearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides.6

But if moderation implies a propensity to compromise in the search for common ground, it is not incompatible with partisanship. Moderates do not look for a deceptive and easy form of bipartisanship, nor do they seek comfortable refuge in an illusory center between the warring parties of the day. Because moderation does not require holding an impartial “view from nowhere,” it must not be identified with lukewarm neutrality. Nor should it be automatically equated with proposing and adopting only “moderate” or “middle-of-the-road” policy positions.

The solutions embraced by moderates reflect their determination to honor the pluralism inherent in society and make decent adjustments without compromising their political views and values. As another famous moderate, Henry Clay, known as the “Great Compromiser,” once put it, “All legislation, all government, all society, is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy.”7 That is why moderates value dialogue and comity over monologue and intransigence. And yet, when agreement on fundamental principles is lacking or is threatened by the rise of the extremes, moderation can become a bold fighting creed. Under such circumstances, remaining indifferent or equidistant between the rival groups competing for power amounts to an act of treason. When essential values and principles such as human dignity, equality, civil freedoms, and nonviolence are under siege, moderates understand that it is time to take sides, with firmness and determination.

Moderation, skepticism, and toleration

Sixth, what distinguishes moderates from extremists and zealots is their refusal to politicize everything. While they feel deeply their commitments, they convey them with a light touch that does not diminish their effectiveness. Moderates do not have the short-term gratification of present passions in view, nor are their ideas formed on partial views. This, I maintain, is a form of courage that should not go unacknowledged. As Joseph Hall, a perceptive 17th-century defender of moderation, put it, “We must be soberly fervent, and discreetly active. […] There must be then, two moderators of our zeal; Discretion, and charity, without either, and both of which, it is no other than a wild distemper.”8 It is charity — the opposite of the all-or-nothing mentality — that distinguishes moderates from their opponents. It is their willingness to consider and at the limit even compromise with antagonistic views that prevents moderates from viewing politics as total warfare in which enemies must be defeated and annihilated at all costs.

Hence, moderates reject the idea that everything in political and public life should be an all-or-nothing fight between friends and foes. In so doing, they avoid becoming zealots obsessed with (ideological or religious) purity who use litmus tests to distinguish between the forces of good and those of evil and to enforce homogeneity. That is why moderates display a surprising capacity for holding and defending partisan beliefs and opinions. They express their commitments without zeal or feverishness, without losing sight of proportions and nuances. Moderates can speak openly and frankly, but their passions are never so feverish that they become zealots who see the world divided between the agents of light and those of darkness.

Moderates never claim that God or the laws of History are infallibly on their side. Although committed to a set of moral principles, they tend to always act with a reserve clause, that is, with the ever-present uncertainty as to whether their ideas and actions are right or not. They are open to questioning, testing, and reconsidering their own values and ideas. This propensity to self-subversion is a key trait and mental habit of the moderate mindset. It is a recognition that it is virtually impossible to live our lives with perfect consistency in the face of the multiple moral dilemmas we constantly face. As such, moderation is always the outcome of an arduous process of political learning, involving concrete experiences, changes of mind, and re-evaluation of previous attitudes.

This propensity to review and even change one’s ideas and/or commitments serves as a necessary corrective to all forms of zealotry and blind partisanship. It reminds moderates that they, too, are fallible beings, much like their opponents. Moderates refuse to consider the latter as enemies who must be crushed and annihilated. On the contrary, they display a generous and tolerant attitude toward those with whom they disagree and from whom they stand ready to learn, both from their virtues and their shortcomings. This is particularly important when moderates enter the political arena.  They do not believe in panaceas or one-size-fits-all theories. Having at best a fuzzy vision of a better world at their disposal, they admit that others, motivated by different ideas and values, can still teach them important lessons. Sometimes, the right things are done for the wrong reasons, while allegedly good and pure intentions can have perverse effects.

That is why moderates are reluctant to involve themselves so deeply and entirely in the service of one single cause or party that their vision of the world would be entirely affected by their political options. They fight with conviction for the cause that seems worthy to them, but they do not despair or fly into a frenzy if their side or program does not prevail in the end. Moderates are willing to adhere to what they perceive as the most reasonable parties or agendas. At the same time, they make a special effort not to appear as especially hostile to the opposing parties. Their nature and inclination do not make them blind to the laudable qualities in their adversaries, nor do they close their eyes when they perceive reproachable defects and limitations in those who fight on the same side with them.

Moderation and dialogue

Finally, the radicalism of moderation is also illustrated by the moderates’ unwavering commitment to dialogue and their staunch opposition to monologue and echo chambers. Their motto is Audiatur et altera pars! (“May the other side also be heard”). No ideas astonish them, no beliefs offend them. They demand that dissenting voices be heard when everyone around them would rather silence them. Moderates lack the assurance that allows them to settle everything; they claim the right to hesitate and weigh the pros and cons in each case. This again is a form of audacity that admits that no conclusions should be formed merely on partial views. The world is a vast school of inquiry from which we can learn a great deal if we keep our eyes open.

And yet, holding open the communication lines with one’s present or past opponents is often (perceived as) painful, unproductive, or even potentially dangerous. Moderates are courageous in their determination to swim against the current by refusing to live in comfortable bubbles and echo chambers. To the monologues carried out in the latter they prefer a robust dialogue and a vigorous but civil confrontation in the public realm with those who hold opposing views. This is precisely what Adam Michnik did in post-communist Poland when he decided to engage in dialogue with his former political opponent, General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Moderates are aware that in politics, truth is most often a question of reconciling and combining opposite values and principles among which no final synthesis is possible. They oppose any group or party that is scornful of compromise and unmoved by scientific evidence, conventions, and facts. Moderates fight against all political groups which, similarly to religious cults, systematically exclude opposing points of view, preventing dissenting voices from being heard. They oppose those who hunt for heretics with apocalyptic urgency, threaten their critics, and insist on strict conformity. They also challenge those who display absolute confidence in the righteousness of their principles and do not entertain the possibility that they might be wrong or the likelihood that those who reject their principles may also possess a kernel of truth.

For moderates, loyalty to one party or group is never a decision of fundamental importance. According to the circumstances, they may agree or disagree with the actions of a given movement or party. Sometimes, moderates are ready to go to extremes in order to defend their fundamental values. They must incline toward the left or the right, in order to prevent the ship of the state from capsizing in rough waters. This explains why moderates can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, not only in the center, as is often believed.

Not a philosophy for weak minds

The question remains: Is “moderate” an empty word unless it is a modifier of other values or principles promoted by groups or parties in society? Can a party of moderates ever exist? And if so, what might it look like? I prefer to leave these questions open because I am not sure what the right answers might be. In Sweden, there is the example of the Moderate Party (Moderata Samlingspartiet or Moderaterna), originally founded in 1904, whose present ideology displays a mix of liberalism and conservatism. Yet, even its most ardent defenders admit that such a party (currently under siege because of its policy toward immigration and cooperation with the far right) might hardly exist in other countries and contexts. After all, the Swedish language has a particular term — lagom — that approximates moderation and is often used to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, combining the search for consensus with commitment to justice, inclusiveness, freedom, and equality.

In my view, moderates are best described as trimmers between the extremes who seek to keep the ship of the state on an even keel — the original nautical meaning of trimming. Trimming requires a great deal of courage and comes with many attached risks. The careers and examples of three prominent Whigs on both sides of the ocean, Edmund Burke, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln, should suffice to convince us of the radical side of moderation. The Whigs were skeptical of the spirit of faction and the passions of the crowd. Their moderation was a moderation of fear. Clay, for example, feared that without timely compromises, the Union would be divided into two or three confederacies. The Whigs feared that if left unchecked, inflamed passions, irrational faculties, and lower impulses in human nature would subvert social order. They put emphasis on carefully planned policies meant to harmonize duties and rights. To countervail the influence of the lower passions they stressed the importance of cultivating self-restraint and self-control by combining liberty with responsibility. It remains an open question whether a newly reinvented “Whig” party, if such a thing were possible, might be able to restore balance in our highly polarized political scene.

Yet, it is important to point out that moderation is not a virtue for all seasons and it should not be seen as a universal cure for all our problems. As Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail made clear, there are “true” and “false” forms of moderation that must not be confounded. Moreover, moderation does not appear to be very useful in organizing protests, demonstrations, or social movements. It is a liability in primary elections when party candidates often (need to) use hyperbole and immoderation in order to gain the upper hand over their rivals. Moderates have a hard time fighting against candidates who believe that we are at that point where one side or the other has to decisively win this argument and dominate. But moderation becomes indispensable when it comes to passing laws and improving the framework that makes our coexistence possible in a diverse and free society.

Moderation today

The virtue of moderation should be of special importance to the Republican Party today, a party which used to have a coherent tradition of moderation until the 1970s but has lost its taste for this elusive virtue lately. The anti-compromise ethos has gained the upper hand among its members, and fiscal libertarianism, moral litmus tests, and hostility to big government have replaced prudence, accommodation, and moderation. The excessive hostility to Barack Obama eventually led the GOP leaders to embrace a scorched-earth approach that changed some of the fundamental rules and norms of governing in our society.  The clearest expression of this ideological intransigence was Senator Mitch McConnell’s infamous statement that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But the Democrats should not ignore the virtue of moderation either. The party has had its own bouts of immoderation and has sometimes fallen prey to the curse of political purity, culminating in Hillary Clinton’s equally infamous remark about the “basket of deplorables” ready to vote for her opponent.

The sad truth is that the growing partisanship in Washington has silenced moderates on both sides of the aisle and significantly weakened their appeal and base. They have been the victims of gerrymandering, relentless fundraising, big donors, and public insults. Moderates have been challenged in ruthless primaries by opponents who campaigned by stressing political purity and litmus tests. At the same time, some of those who have worked hard to strike necessary compromises with their political opponents have decided not to seek re-election. Today, moderates seem to belong almost to another planet and have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection. As the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman once said, “Extremists tend to go all the way and the moderates tend just to go away.”9

Hence, the question “Who needs moderation today?” should perhaps be rephrased as follows: “What kind of moderation might we need today in our hyper-polarized world?” This is a form of moderation that does not call for an illusory form of bipartisanship or a fuzzy center in which we would be expected to dissolve our differences. It does not search for or condone “safe spaces” and lukewarm solutions. The moderation that we need today is a radical form that trims between the extremes without making imprudent concessions to them. It warns against any form of radical anger not backed by coherent policies based on real facts. This radical form of moderation consists in affirming one’s opinions boldly, firmly, and with civility, while opposing all forms of fanaticism and ideological intransigence and all stark dichotomies. Much like Washington’s or Lincoln’s moderation, it combines prudence and self-restraint with a sense of proportions and firmness of character.

This bold type of moderation respects opposing ideas while challenging them, firmly but without zeal, hatred, or desire for revenge. It refrains from attacking persons, issuing proscriptions, enforcing litmus tests, or condoning violence. This form of moderation asks probing questions and challenges received dogmas with a mixture of irreverence, humor, and awareness of human fallibility. As such, it has nothing in common with the pusillanimity and weakness often ascribed to it. Such an audacious type of moderation lives by accommodation and common sense and is capable of inspiring hope and channeling discontent, while avoiding violence or turmoil. It does not close its eyes to injustice and does not accept half-measures when it comes to defending fundamental democratic principles. It does not forget that our world is eclectic and full of permanent antinomies that cannot be definitively solved.

In a political system that would be less dependent than ours on primaries, moderates who cannot be put in a box and whose voting pattern cannot be predicted would pose a major challenge to the whole system. Their unpredictability would give moderates, as unencumbered politicians, a real window of opportunity to make their voices heard at crucial moments in the passing of key pieces of legislation. But it would probably be mistaken to focus only on legislators and the federal level and ignore the resources of moderation dormant in the bosom of civil society, in the local communities. Once we come to think of our system in terms of a polycentric system of governance, as Elinor and Vincent Ostrom taught us, we will soon realize that there will always be many local resources for moderation, and that our obsession with the federal level is counterproductive.

I should like to end by quoting the words of a courageous intellectual who endorsed such a radical form of moderation in dark times. For Albert Camus, moderation defined as a sense of measure and proportions entailed great tensions and risks. His defiant moderation was supposed to be in the service of justice so as not to add to the social injustice inherent in the human condition. Its duty was to insist on using plain language and clear ideas so as not to increase the world of lies and deception. Embracing such a form of radical moderation is far from being an easy task and requires a combative attitude. Hardball is often necessary even if unpleasant; instead of complaining about it, we should pay more attention to getting better at it.

Camus thought that our world does not need tepid and lukewarm souls. It needs instead burning and passionate hearts, men and women who know the proper place of moderation in a world made of many hues of gray. To him, moderation was a source of strength, not weakness; it was the guiding principle of good government and decent society. This was true in 1944, when Camus wrote and when his moral imperative was to save innocent lives. It seems equally true today, when we are called to face new challenges that threaten our free way of life.


1. Aurelian Craiutu, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15561.html; and A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012), http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9738.html.

2. Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Daniel E. Ritchie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 16.

3. Jerry Taylor, “The Alternative to Ideology,”  Niskanen Center, Oct. 29, 2018, https://www.niskanencenter.org/blog/the-alternative-to-ideology/; Brink Lindsey e al., The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes (Niskanen Center: December 2018) https://www.niskanencenter.org/blog/the-center-can-hold-public-policy-for-an-age-of-extremes/.

4. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Ormond Seavey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 350-51.

5. José Ortega y Gasset, Toward a Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 70.

6. George Washington, “Farewell Address” (1796), http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp. 

7. As quoted in Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 127.

8. Joseph Hall, Christian Moderation (London, 1640), 15-16. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A02520.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

9. Thomas L. Friedman, “Backlash to the Backlash,” New York Times, Sept. 25, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/26/opinion/friedman-backlash-to-the-backlash.html.