What is moderation? The term is used both positively and pejoratively in today’s political discourse but rarely is it defined. Aurelian Craiutu is a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington who has, perhaps more than anyone else, tried to define moderation and its manifestations in politics and philosophy over the past several centuries. He is the author of major works on moderation, including A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830, and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.
In this podcast discussion, Aurelian discusses his historical research into moderation and his theoretical analyses of moderation and its relation to different varieties of liberalism. He considers the political, economic, moral, legal, and religious aspects of liberalism and why liberalism (as well as moderation) is under threat from both left and right. And, he reminds us, the leading challengers to both liberalism and moderation today do not come from hostile regimes like Russia or China but from within Western democracies. Unlike some of liberalism’s defenders, he concedes that conservative critics of liberalism respond to real problems in contemporary societies.
Aurelian was born in communist Romania during the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, and he discusses how the absence of key liberal and moderate values in that society made him appreciate both the fragility of liberal civilization and the importance of moderation as an antidote to zealotry and fanaticism. He sketches some of the political and ethical components of moderation, including an aversion to fanaticism and epistemological arrogance. He also discusses some thinkers who embodied aspects of moderation, including French sociologist Raymond Aron and Polish activist Adam Michnik. He calls for moderates to resist the temptation to turn opponents into enemies, for people on both the left and the right to “read across the aisle,” and for Republicans and Democrats to foster “a climate that promotes dialogue, humility, moderation, compromise, [and] anything that opposes fanaticism.”
Aurelian Craiutu: The image of moderation is that of a weak virtue, and I think that it is a difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by my friend Aurelian Craiutu. He’s a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he is also affiliated with the Russian and East European Institute, the Institute for West European Studies, and the Ostrom Workshop, which carries on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vincent Ostrom. And not least among his distinguished affiliations is that he is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
Aurelian has particular interests in French political and social thought, European and American political ideologies, comparative political theory, and democratic consolidation. And he is the author and editor of several books on modern political thought, among which are two of the greatest works on moderation in existence: A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. Aurelian truly is one of the great modern philosophers of moderation. He is also as much an intellectual historian and biographer as he is a political scientist, which makes him something of a renaissance man in today’s world of narrow and technical academic scholarship. Welcome, Aurelian!
Aurelian Craiutu: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s great to be doing this interview with you. My Facebook Memories page just yesterday popped up with one of your posts from a year ago, in which you revealed not only that you are an ardent bibliophile but also that you have several personal libraries on two continents.
Aurelian Craiutu: There is some truth to that. I am an avid book collector. I don’t read all of them, but I’m almost compulsively drawn to buying new books. I’ve just bought three new books this morning and one of them is a book by Raymond Aron. I do have some books in Romania as well, where I have a big library in Bucharest. I don’t get to see those book too often; I miss some of them. Some probably are missing me as well, but that’s how life is.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although we all know that it’s superficial to measure anyone’s intellectual prowess by their shelf space, I must say that the libraries of yours that I have seen are extremely impressive.
Aurelian Craiutu: True, but there is one thing I would say… There is a tendency among younger colleagues that I’ve seen to have no books in their office. So I have a very simple principle: If I go into someone’s office and I see no books, then I become suspicious.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s an excellent rule to live by. Out of curiosity, what are some of the oldest books in your collection, in terms of the manuscripts’ publication dates?
Aurelian Craiutu: Well, I do have… Because I work on 19th-century French thought, I do have some books from the first half of the 19th century, or around the mid-19th century — books by François Guizot, for example, The History of Civilization in Europe, I think 1858. I have a very nice edition of his memoirs published in 1858 in eight volumes. Those are impeccably preserved, actually.
Geoff Kabaservice: What are the main languages represented in your collections?
Aurelian Craiutu: I take some pride in the fact that I think I can read in a few languages. I don’t speak all of them, at least, but I can read. I’m a native speaker of Romanian, of course, but I also have a good reading knowledge and speaking knowledge of French. But I read in German, Spanish, and I’m struggling with Italian. I shouldn’t, but that’s the least favorite of mine and I want to improve on that front. But those are the only languages. I do have friends who speak 17 languages, or read 17 languages. I do not belong to that category.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was actually just an article in the Washington Post about, basically, someone who cleans carpets for a living who can speak or at least understand 37 languages. There are definitely some…
Aurelian Craiutu: I’ve met people like that, and one of them is a good friend of mine who teaches history at Central European University. His name is Balázs Trencsényi. Balázs is a phenomenon. I think he reads 17 languages, including Japanese.
Geoff Kabaservice: Excellent. I’m sure some of the people who are listening to this program are going to be a little curious to know how and why your parents gave you your first name.
Aurelian Craiutu: That may not be so exciting, but since you asked, I will tell you. It wasn’t the first name that they thought of. I think my father or my mom used to tell me it would have been Valentin. But it’s interesting that they went for Aurelian, because I think it goes well with the last name. Aurelian, incidentally, was the Roman emperor who gave the order of withdrawal of the Roman armies from Dacia in 273. So there’s a connection there, but I’m not sure whether they had that in mind or simply if it was just the musicality of the word. It’s not a regular name in Romanian. It’s also to be found in French, for example, with an accent on the first “e,” I guess. But it’s a name that I came to like.
Geoff Kabaservice: I last saw you all of four days ago, when you were in an unseasonably cold Washington D.C. to participate in a weekend discussion colloquium on liberalism, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. How did that turn out?
Aurelian Craiutu: The topic of the colloquium is interesting. We gathered to discuss challenges to liberal democracy from both the left and the right. I think the title of the colloquium organized by IHS was “Liberalism and Its Critics.” I should have also added “and Its Friends,” because liberalism still has a lot of friends. But the bottom line is the fact that we live in a moment where there is a crisis of liberal democracy. Many think that liberalism is dead or close to being dead. So we gathered to look at a number of readings that examine what is liberalism, and why there are signs of decline or decay, and what can we do from here? Those were the main topics.
One thing that I took from this conference, which I would like to continue to write on, is the fact that I think it’s mistaken to talk about liberalism in the singular. Liberalism is a family of doctrines, a family of dialects, and we should talk about liberalisms in plural. I mean that seriously, because there is a huge world of difference between, let’s say, ordoliberalism — which is the type of liberalism developed in post-war Germany by thinkers such as Walter Eucken, Alexander Rüstow, Alfred Müller-Armack, and Wilhelm Röpke — and laissez-faire liberalism or variants of libertarianism developed in the United States. All of these differences matter and I think we should talk about liberalisms in plural, not in singular.
Geoff Kabaservice: Coincidentally or not, Ezra Klein wrote a New York Times column that appeared that same weekend that you had that discussion colloquium, entitled “The Enemies of Liberalism Are Showing Us What It Really Means.” He pointed out that when we talk about liberalism (or liberalisms) as we’re doing right now, we don’t mean it in the sense that most people understand it, of pertaining to the political left. We mean liberalism as what Ezra calls “the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.”
He goes on to say that although liberalism has, in many ways, been eroded or battered by the challenges posed by financial crises, the climate change crisis, the pandemic, the rise of China, and populist movements on both left and right, nonetheless Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked invasion has reminded the West that life under liberalism is worth fighting for. Did you get a sense in that Institute for Humane Studies colloquium that the discussion around liberalism was different than it might have been if it had taken place before Putin’s dreadful actions on February 24th?
Aurelian Craiutu: Not exactly, to be frank. But I do have a sense that the way in which we talk about liberalism today — or liberal democracy, which is a different term than liberalism, properly speaking — I think it’s different from how we used to talk about liberal democracy 10 years ago, in the sense that now we live in a world that took for granted the fact that there was a postwar liberal order that is now being challenged, is under duress.
We have a war going on and, of course, nobody can even mention the phrase “The end of history.” It’s rather a new global disorder that has settled in, rather than the end of history. I would put that a bit further back, 10 years, maybe 20 years. We are still processing what’s going on in Ukraine and how this will impact our immediate future.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s true. But you know, I saw a Quinnipiac poll of American adults from about a month ago in which the question was asked, “If you were in the same position as the Ukrainians are now, do you think that you would stay and fight or leave the country?” Overall, the response was that 55% would stay and fight and 38% would leave. But I found it interesting and a bit troubling that of respondents in the 18-34 year-old bracket, more of them said that they would leave rather than fight.
Among Democrats of all ages, the margin was even greater, with 52% saying that they would leave the country and only 40% saying that they would stay and fight. I suppose you could say this is just a poll, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to how people would actually respond if we were invaded. I mean, in 1933, the Oxford Union voted by a substantial majority that “Resolved, this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” And yet nearly all of those former undergraduates fought for both six years later.
Still, it’s a bit troubling. It suggests that, in many cases, people don’t think that liberalism, as well as the country at large, are worth fighting for. I also, as you know, came from a conference of national conservatives in Brussels, where some people seem to express an interest in fighting against liberalism to overthrow it.
Aurelian Craiutu: I think that it’s very important, again — and I think that’s the greatest contribution of discussions like those we had over the weekend in D.C. over liberalism — it’s important to figure out what liberalism is, what it entails. There are several pillars and dimensions of liberalism that I think need to be highlighted clearly — not distinguished necessarily from each other, but nonetheless named.
One is the legal dimension. The other one is the political aspect. Economic. Moral. So at least four, if not five if we add the religious aspect, because there is no a priori incompatibility between religion and liberalism. So the weakening or the disappearance of one of these pillars does not mean that liberalism is on its way out.
To give you an example, you could express skepticism towards key liberal principles, such as commitments to individual agency or individual choice — which is a common trope among conservative critics of liberalism. But you have to maintain, and you can maintain at the same time, a strong commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of association.
I think that if those who seem unsure about their commitments would come to see things the way in which I suggest they should, I think they would be less willing to give up liberalism, or liberal democracy, or values associated with that. You don’t have to be, let’s say, someone who embraces unregulated markets and trade. Still, you can defend essential features of liberalism, such as non-discrimination under law, equality under law, or security of property rights and freedom of contract.
I think that when people are asked, “How about this?” or “How about that? You may not like one thing, but would you be willing to give up on the others?” I think they would start thinking more about what liberal democracy can do for them and what they should be embracing. I think that our task — at least my task as an intellectual historian, historian of ideas, political theories, whatever — is to bring to other people’s attention the fact that liberalism is a complex tradition.
It’s a diverse tradition. There’s an internal diversity and complexity that usually gets neglected in these discussions. The dimensions that you mentioned from Ezra Klein’s piece are certainly part and parcel of liberal tradition, but the liberal tradition should not be reduced to those, to rights and the other values that you mentioned. It’s much more complex.
Geoff Kabaservice: A point well taken. To go back to Ezra’s column, he took as his starting point Matthew Rose’s new book A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right. As it happens, you wrote a review of that book last month. Can you say something about the book and what made you want to review it?
Aurelian Craiutu: I’ve always believed that it’s quite important to read those who are not allies, thinkers who think differently from us. In this regard, I’m inspired by a phrase of Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford political philosopher, in a conversation with Steven Lukes. This is what Berlin said: “I’m bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views, because by now those things seem largely to be a collection of platitudes because we all accept them, we all believe them. What is interesting is to read the enemy, because the enemy penetrates the defenses, the weak points, because what interests me,” Berlin reiterated, “is what is wrong with the ideas in which I believe — why it may be right to modify or even abandon them.”
I think this reflects very well why I’m interested in the authors discussed in Matthew Rose’s book. Among them are Oswald Spengler, the author of a great book, The Decline of the West, published in 1918, and Julius Evola, the author of a great book called The Revolt Against the Modern World.
There were other figures in the book, including two American figures, Francis Yockey and Samuel Francis, that I think are very prescient (or were very prescient), and can teach us something about the problems that we’re facing today with the rise of the “Middle American radicals,” as Francis called them, and this revolt of the masses against the elites.
I think that, for all of those reasons, the book itself is chock-full of insights from the authors that Matthew Rose discusses, but also from Rose himself. I would like to applaud this young scholar for the courage to write on — I wouldn’t say the alt-right, but on the thinkers whose ideas are found today in circles that we normally associate with the hard- or alt-right.
Geoff Kabaservice: I echo your praise for the book. I think it’s an excellent work. I was mentioning to you earlier, I have a hard time finding pages because I’m reading this on a Kindle. But I was just struck by the fact that he does express a willingness to grapple with these authors with whom he disagrees very deeply, and also finds them significant.
Sam Francis, for example, to choose one of the people you mentioned, in many ways was sort of a prophet of Trumpism. He was also an advisor to Patrick Buchanan, who was kind of a John the Baptist of Trump. The person I was trying to think of earlier that I didn’t mention was Charles Maurras, who was a French, I guess you would say neo-fascist and creator of the Action Française movement. He also is someone I would group in this conservative revolution of the pre-World War II era whom Matthew Rose is recovering.
I thought this was a particularly interesting quote from your review, Aurelian: “Rose is right to remind us that the main contemporary challengers of liberalism do not come from outside the liberal world — that is, from regimes like China or Russia or illiberal democracies like Hungary — but from within Western democracies. The type of conservatism that is on the rise today differs from older forms that defended principles such as individual liberty, limited government, immigration, and free trade. The new conservative universe is populated by populists and nationalists, futurists and religious traditionalists, who believe that the classical tenets of conservativism have become obsolete or dangerous because they drew upon the very liberal principles responsible for our present crisis.”
Aurelian Craiutu: In a way, I think this idea that the main challenges come from within is bound to shock everyone. Because we assumed that, at least until recently, the greatest dangers came from without — communism, in particular, during the Cold War. I think that political theorists and historians have been kind of taken by surprise by the fact that “the enemy,” so to speak, in quotation marks, is within the walls of the city, not outside of the walls of the city. I think that’s important to focus on today.
I think that there is a tendency to dismiss these people as lunatics, deranged; to characterize them as stupid, nihilist, evil, or irrelevant. But I think that it’s important, as Matthew Rose’s book (and others, actually) have pointed out, it’s important to take a second look and not dismiss this. These conservative critiques of liberalism are dangerous and this is not a reason not to study them.
They express a certain longing for, let’s say, memory, identity, and roots. And one of the weaknesses of liberalism, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, has been to ignore the issues of identity, memory, and roots. The emphasis on roots is very important here because it helps explain, at least to a certain extent, the reluctance of the “Middle American radicals,” as Samuel Francis called them in 2005 or ‘96, their reluctance to embrace cosmopolitan values.
We all like to travel, we all like to sample exotic food. Cosmopolitanism has its own great benefits. But we’ve lost track of the importance of roots. In this regard, I think having roots — it’s something that may be pre-modern or conservative, but it is something that is a vital human need. That’s important to acknowledge.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned Sam Francis, Rose devotes the fifth chapter of his book to Francis. And he starts out in 2016, when Rush Limbaugh read passages from a 5,000-word essay by Francis which was warning about “globalist elites who manage the de-legitimization of our own culture, the dispossession of our people, and disregard or diminish our national interests and national sovereignty.” And he went on about how he was encouraging Republicans to campaign on limiting immigration, saving blue-collar jobs, and promising to restore middle Americans to their central place in the nation’s life. And this did, in fact, speak to the Trump movement that was taking shape — but the author, Sam Francis, had actually died 10 years before. So this was something that he actually saw coming from a long way off.
I’d mentioned that I was at that National Conservatism conference in Brussels last month as a non-participating observer. And there actually were a lot of references, particularly among the younger people there, to a kind of rootlessness and how this is a large part of their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the state of things. So I think it’s worthwhile remembering, particularly as we look to the run-off election that’s happening in France with Marine Le Pen as one of the two contenders and definitely a possibility for the next president of France, that these are real anxieties. And these older and what I’m sure many people would regard as repellent philosophies are speaking to something that a lot of people are finding appealing, in a way they wouldn’t have a number of years ago.
Aurelian Craiutu: These are signs of great changes that are occurring in our lives. And whether we like them or not, we need to find a way to live with them. It depends on how we look at them. So for some, this is, I think, a sign of national carnage. This is what the former president actually chose to describe the current situation, a carnage of monumental proportions. For others, it’s a moment of change that will probably bring new forms, certainly will bring new forms. The question is: How can we adjust ourselves in due course so that we can live comfortably with them? But there are phenomena that nobody can deny: the breakdown of the family, or the reconfiguration, redescription of what families are supposed to do and what they represent. There is a clear coarsening of the popular culture. The economy has become financialized and manufacturing jobs are rare these days, they have disappeared from swathes of land. And there’s a kind of a concern about immigration — I’m talking about America but also France, since you mentioned the current presidential campaign or election second round in two weeks.
So it is very important to acknowledge that these are real facts. I don’t think it will be legitimate to label them signs of carnage, but I do think that it’s important to take those seriously. And I think what conservative critics of liberalism can really contribute to is to make us think about these issues. I contrasted Rose’s book with another book called The Reactionary Mind that seemed to simplify the picture of the conservative movement. And I think that’s not prudent, to say the least, because the signs of dysfunctionality, and the dysfunctionalities that these conservative critics write about, are real. The solutions they propose may be, let’s say, exaggerated or in some cases irrational. But the problems are there. And whether we like them or not, we are facing them.
So I think that it’s very important to talk about these issues and “the need for roots.” This is a phrase that I borrow from Simone Weil, a thinker of the left, who wrote a great book in the 1940s about this issue. And these issues are real. Now, what does it mean to have roots? That’s a different story, and I’m not qualified to talk about that since I’m an immigrant and I’ve changed my roots. It’s possible, I think, to have new roots or develop new roots in a new setting. But we need to talk about this.
Issues of religion are very important in this regard. And one thing that I would like to see liberals do more is to take religion seriously. You don’t have to be an atheist in order to be a liberal. And I think that the same could apply to conservatives. You can be, let’s say, a skeptic and still be a conservative in some respects — politically at least. So I would like to make a plea for a kind of fusionism here between themes that are both liberal and conservative. And I think that there is a call for that in some circles, but there’s also, on the other hand, a push towards ideological purity: You have to be ideologically pure to join our ranks on the left or on the right. And that leads, as you know, to living in closed bubbles. And I think that’s a problem that we’re seeing today: a polarization-based on affective aspects, not a polarization based on issues.
We live in bubbles, echo chambers. And that’s one of the challenges that we discussed at the conference on liberal democracy, and it’s something that anyone should be concerned about. How do we read? What do we read? How do we talk to others who share different views? Do we have people in our circles who differ from us? And those are hard questions. And I must confess that I also live in a bubble. I’m a college professor. I teach in a college town. My life is pretty compartmentalized, and I live in my own bubble.
Geoff Kabaservice: In the interest of the higher moderation, I will refrain from the opportunity you gave me to launch yet another broadside against Corey Robin and his book The Reactionary Mind. But I actually wanted to say that there were two interesting things that, to me, emerged from the French election which we were talking about. One of which is that it showed the complete collapse of the established parties that once upon a time had dominated French political life. I think the conservatives got 4.8% and the Socialist Party maybe just a little over 2%. And that is very interesting because it shows the widespread disillusionment with conventional politics and, I think, establishments of all kinds.
Aurelian Craiutu: This is a phenomenon that is not new, but indeed the numbers struck me as extraordinary: I thought 5% for the former conservatives and 2% for the Socialists. That’s very little if you think about the fact that only 30 years ago those parties were dominating the political scene. Now, that’s history, and the phenomenon is not only limited to France. The Italian political scene has been facing more or less similar challenges; the Christian Democrats are gone almost, the Socialists are struggling. There are new parties, new political actors. It’s very easy to become a new political actor today, and I think that there are fewer entrance tests and criteria. In a way, it’s more democratic; in another way, it’s an invitation to instability and a kind of chaos in some respects.
The French political scene is interesting because France is in the process of redefining its own identity. There is a large percentage of Muslim population, as you know, coming from mostly Tunisia but also from North Africa. And the French have to find a new way of defining what is the Republic, what does it mean to be French? And I looked at where Marine Le Pen was gathering most support, and Zemmour. And I was surprised to see that even in rich areas, such as Central Paris or in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Zemmour and Le Pen did pretty well.
Geoff Kabaservice: The leading figure right now is the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron with his relatively new party, La République En Marche! Would you say Macron is a centrist or a moderate? And if it’s one or the other, how would you differentiate them?
Aurelian Craiutu: I’ve never understood exactly what Macron stands for, and this is mostly because I haven’t followed his career too closely. But I am worried… And I don’t want to identify moderation with centrism. The way in which I think about moderation is that it can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. There are moderates on the left, in the center, and on the right. It’s not necessary to be a centrist in order to be a moderate. So that’s something that I think can be demonstrated by looking at thinkers in the past, politicians and agendas. With regard to Macron, I think that he has been trying to colonize the center in French politics and brought his original novelty to kind of try to find a new center. I don’t think he has succeeded in that regard. So it’s not clear that he can be labeled a successful centrist so far.
I don’t see a lot of ideas in the Macron agenda. I think that he will win this time again because the choice there is pretty clear. But I think that even people who will vote for him in the second round will vote without enthusiasm. His agenda cannot elicit a lot of enthusiasm. I was surprised to see, for example, the support for Mélenchon on the extreme left. About 20% of the electorate voted for the candidate of the extreme left, a candidate who has ideas. Those ideas are not mine, but those ideas can electrify the electorate.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’d referred to Éric Zemmour…
Aurelian Craiutu: No, Mélenchon…
Geoff Kabaservice: You had referred earlier to Éric Zemmour, the head of the Reconquête party.
Aurelian Craiutu: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: The term “moderation” actually tends to show up in these discussions in saying that he is so radical that he makes Le Pen look moderate by comparison.
Aurelian Craiutu: Also, Zemmour was a very articulate candidate in this. I would say intellectually speaking he’s above Le Pen, because he writes books and he knows how to express himself. Maybe that’s why he didn’t win.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’ve told me in the past, Aurelian, that you particularly appreciate the values of liberalism and democracy and moderation because you grew up in a society where they were absent. Can you tell me more about that?
Aurelian Craiutu: I think it’s very important to be deprived of key liberal values — such as freedom to speak your own mind, freedom to associate with others, freedom to move — in order to appreciate how difficult it is to achieve this freedom and to enjoy those. And I think the experience of growing up under a communist regime has helped me understand the fragility of the liberal civilization. Now, that’s something that we’ve rediscovered today; we shouldn’t take anything for granted. But I do remember very clearly my encounter with a few seminal texts that I read in the 1980s. I was in college or about to finish college, and I came across a few works that opened my eyes. The one that comes to mind is a book by Wilhelm Röpke, it’s called The Social Crisis of Our Time. It’s a book published in 1942 — so two years before Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.
In many ways, I prefer Röpke’s The Social Crisis of Our Time to any other book published in the 1940s and even in the ’50s, because it gives a good diagnosis of the crisis of the liberal order then and charts the road ahead. But there were other books that influenced my way of thinking. One of them was Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s a book that I got to read late — after the fall of communism, actually. And it’s a book that was an instant love affair — intellectual love affair, of course. I’ve remained under the spell of Tocqueville ever since.
Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America brought me in contact with of course an ideal society and a model for me. But that’s a model that I’ve never relinquished. It’s a model of a self-governing society, enlightened citizens that are aware of their rights and the rights of others, and are able to cooperate with others on a local basis. That’s something of an ideal. I understand that civil society is no longer as, let’s say, vibrant as once it was in the 1950s in America. Civil society itself has its own pathologies; we shouldn’t assume that any organization is there to promote liberal democratic principles. But it seems to me that without a vibrant civil society, you cannot have a free society. And this is the lesson that I learned under communism: In the absence of a civil society, you cannot be free.
Geoff Kabaservice: Where did you grow up in Romania?
Aurelian Craiutu: Well, I did my undergraduate work in Bucharest. I studied economics, of all the sciences. I was never convinced that was the right decision. I wanted to study literature. I grew up in the northern part of Romania, in a region called Bukovina. Bukovina is divided into Southern and Northern Bukovina. The northern part of Bukovina is part of Ukraine. My hometown, Suceava, is only 50 kilometers south of the border with Ukraine. So I grew up in that region that once belonged to the Austrian Habsburg empire until 1918, a truly multicultural region in many respects. My father’s family came from the town of Czernowitz, which was a flourishing city back then. At the University of Czernowitz, for example, Joseph Schumpeter taught in 1911 for one year. It was a major cultural and university city. I never got to see it because it was part of Ukraine, the former Soviet Union and now Ukraine. I’d like to see it one day.
But that world itself no longer exists. It was a truly multicultural world. My grandmother was educated in German in the primary school there. There was a strong Jewish community; they spoke Yiddish at home. There was a Ukrainian community and a Polish. Now, that world came to an end in 1940s with the onset of the Second World War and it no longer exists. But it exists as an ideal.
From Czernowitz came two great poets, by the way, whom I admire a lot. One is well-known: Paul Celan, who became the one of the greatest (if not the greatest) German poet after World War II, who by the way lived in Paris for a long time. And the other one is Rose Ausländer, who died in 1988. Celan died in 1970. And Rose Ausländer was actually a fascinating figure, very little known today, a great poet of German language. So I’ve always been fascinated by that world. And maybe that’s why I loved learning German in school, because it was a way for me to connect to that world, a world that is gone. But again, I divided my time between northern Romania and Bucharest, and that’s where I did my undergraduate work.
Geoff Kabaservice: The invasion of Ukraine has sort of showed anew, shall we say, the limits of most Americans’ understandings of Eastern Europe. The historian Tony Judt was, I think, the first person to produce an integrated history of Europe in his work Postwar, which required him to learn Czech among other things. And I actually remember coming across an article by Judt in the New York Review of Books, I think in 2001, on Romania, which was subtitled “Bottom of the Heap.” Which is an unkind description, but it did point out that Romania, although Ceaușescu was held in considerably high esteem by Western leaders for being a supposedly independent communist, had really forced a greater degree of suffering on his people than even most other Eastern European communist regimes.
Aurelian Craiutu: I have a great appreciation for the work of the late Tony Judt, but I must confess that that article (which I remember very well) enraged me at the time. And if I’m not mistaken, I even conceived of a letter that I wanted to send to the editor. I’m happy I didn’t, because in many ways Judt was right. And Romania had been for a long time (maybe still is) a laggard in economic terms in catching up with the other East European countries. Now, looking today at a country like Hungary — politically speaking, I’m not so sure anymore that Romania is the laggard in that regard. But at the time, certainly that was the case.
One thing that I would say is that it’s not, I think, accurate to talk about communism in general — like with liberalism — because there were different flavors of communism. The communist regime in Hungary, the one in Poland was different from the communist regime in Romania or Bulgaria. The Romanian communist regime was a sultanistic regime. It was based on an unconditional loyalty to one leader. In a way, it was a shameful system. It’s a system that we thought — and this was the greatest illusion that many of us had — we thought that by getting rid of the dictator, society would recover soon. Well, that’s not the case.
The mere fact of living under a regime like Ceaușescu’s regime in Romania, especially in the 1980s, infected society with a virus that is still present today. What do I mean by that? Well, first and foremost, dissimulation, a lack of trust in others, a lack of cooperation, ability to cooperate with others, the desire to get rich at the expense of others quickly — all of these have roots in the past. And the climate of fear in which we lived in the 1980s, I think, took a high toll on people.
Many Romanians decided to leave the country after ’89. According to some statistics, 2.5 or 3 million people have chosen, especially after Romania joined the European Union, to work abroad. It doesn’t mean that they won’t return there, but it means that the country is facing today a demographic crisis. And it’ll have to figure out the way ahead. Even if it’s in European Union, even if it’s part of NATO, it’ll have to figure out a new identity for itself in the years ahead. But again for me, the lesson is that our type of communism was among the worst in Eastern Europe — with the exception of Albania, probably. And we learned a few habits that proved to be very detrimental once we were free to learn again the ABCs of liberty after ’89.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I’ve seen a quote by you where you said that growing up under Ceaușescu taught you not just about the fragility of freedom but also about the importance of political moderation as an antidote to zealotry and fanaticism.
Aurelian Craiutu: Yeah. Well, I’m pretty sure that my interest in the concept of political moderation has a little bit of biographical roots, no doubt about that. But I think the experience of living under Ceaușescu’s regime proved that every man in power, that has no countervailing forces, left alone can become a beast of prey. And you need those countervailing forces, checks and balances, a vibrant and resilient civil society to create those protective screens between power and citizens. So in that respect, I think that my interest in moderation does have, let’s say, a biographical explanation.
Aurelian Craiutu: But I’ve always been fascinated by moderate thinkers who are concerned with maintaining the balance of the ship. Keeping the ship on an even keel is, I think, one of the best definitions of what political moderation is all about — hence the image of the trimmer. The trimmer is the person who trims the sails in order to prevent the ship from capsizing.
There is no algorithm, there is no science that could explain what to do, when to act, when not to act. You have to have political judgment. You have to have political flair. You have to be like a tightrope walker. And in this regard, I think it’s one of the riskiest things to try to act as a moderate when passions run high, when reason is overcome by passion and most people just want to shout and express their dismay, their concerns and so forth, without concern for political moderation. It’s a virtue, as a title of my book says, a virtue only for courageous minds. It’s a paradox. The image of moderation is that of a weak virtue. And I think, and we can talk at length about this, that it is a difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk.
Geoff Kabaservice: I know the exact act date on which you came to my attention first, Aurelian. It was October 25th, 2012. I was then still a subscriber to the paper edition of the New York Times, and David Brooks that day had a column with the title “What Moderates Believe.” At the end of it he mentioned that you had written a great history book describing political moderation with that title, A Virtue for Courageous Minds. And since there was basically nobody else besides me who seemed to be writing about political moderation and its history, I thought I should get to know you. I managed to write an enormously long book on moderation without ever really defining it. But nonetheless, with an almost Trumpian level of shamelessness, I’m going to ask you: How would you define moderation?
Aurelian Craiutu: It’s one of the most difficult concepts to define because moderation constitutes an archipelago. There is political moderation, so we look at the institutional aspects of moderation: What are the institutions and mechanisms that limit power, that prevent power from being abused? And we know what those are: checks and balances, constitutionalism, freedoms, freedom of the press — a very important freedom — freedom of association, constitutionalism, bicameralism. And there are others: federalism maybe, decentralization, subsidiarity. All of those constitute what I would say is the institutional archipelago of moderation.
But there’s also, when we talk about moderation, a host of ideas related to its ethical part. What does it mean to be a moderate? Well, there are lots of things here that can be said. One thing that I would emphasize is that to be a moderate is the opposite of being a fanatic. A fanatic is someone who doesn’t put things in perspective; that subsumes everything under one category, one principle; that is ready to sacrifice everything for the pursuit of that single value, be that liberty, equality, pro-life, pro-choice, low taxes, you name it. So that’s one.
There is also implied in the ethical component of moderation a good dose of skepticism and awareness of one’s fallibility — which is a form of modesty, if you wish, and a form of humility. Moderates are people who tend to be modest and display a good dose of humility, understanding very well that they may be wrong, that they may have only a portion of the truth.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I’m glad to see that you quoted Justice Learned Hand, from the United States, with his famous saying that “The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”
Aurelian Craiutu: Absolutely. And I think what Justice Learned Hand said about liberty describes exactly the spirit of moderation: the spirit that is not sure it is right, hopes it’s on the right path but it can never be certain of that. Also, moderates are those who promote dialogue and compromise.
Now, the relation with this concept is complicated. You ask how I would define… I just wanted to highlight the institutional but also the ethical components of moderation. And there is also the third aspect of moderation, which is religious moderation. Now that’s a topic that I have not written about, and I’ve thought a little bit about it, but there is a whole continent of religious moderation that I think needs to be rediscovered today. To be religious and to be moderate are two different things, but they’re not incompatible — on the contrary. Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the thinkers that comes to mind here. He was able to combine both political moderation and religious moderation. But there are others as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: Niebuhr was one of the founding members, I believe, of Americans for Democratic Action, together with people like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and really was one of my political heroes as well, I would say. So let’s talk about this metaphor of trimming that you mentioned, which was first used in this political sense by the Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century, and which was later taken up by the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. I guess I don’t like the name “trimming” because one of the dictionary definitions of the trimmer is a person who, as you said, will adapt their views to the prevailing social trends for their own personal advancement. But other hand, I do like the concept of adjusting the cargo, trimming the sails to keep the ship on an even keel.
But you know, in the long ago before-the-pandemic era, way back in 2019 you were part of a Niskanen Center conference on moderation, and got into — not an argument, but a discussion with Andrew Sullivan and Jacob Levy about this metaphor. Because Michael Oakeshott was content that the people on the ship have no idea where they’re going; the only important thing is just to keep it on an even keel. Is that more or less how you feel about this metaphor, or do you have differences with Andrew there?
Aurelian Craiutu: I think I have a slight difference with Andrew Sullivan on that, though we both like Oakeshott’s metaphor and Oakeshott’s writings in general. I do think there is a sense in which the journey is heading somewhere. There is no end site that we can be certain of. We want to avoid certain destinations, I guess. And I would say that I like the concept of the open society, because precisely it has the word “open” in it. The open society is a decent society, a society in which individuals’ rights are protected. They are not humiliated and they do not live in fear. I think that’s an ideal that a trimmer can espouse and should espouse. And in that regard, the trimmer is not politically neutral. The identification between trimming and opportunism is something that I resist. And as you pointed out, it’s certainly, I think, a commonplace that needs to be challenged. To be a trimmer doesn’t mean that you have to be unaffiliated.
I’ll give you an example, a concrete example here. Someone that I respect a lot, and I wrote about in Faces of Moderation and elsewhere, was Raymond Aron. Raymond Aron was a great French political thinker, sociologist, and journalist who at some points in his career acted as a trimmer. For example, in 1968 he criticized the university system for being sclerotic. The university was then, as it probably is still now, very anchored in old practices that didn’t serve the student needs. And he thought that professors should be more available to students, they should put less emphasis on exams and more on engaging with students. So he was for reform in the system.
On the other hand, he was vehemently against the students’ revolt in ‘68 because he thought that they were interested in carnival rather than real reform. So he was a trimmer. To the students, he talked the language of the university administrators, arguing for finding a modus vivendi between their claims and the university’s needs and constraints. And to the university administrators, he spoke the language of the students, pushing for reform against the sclerotic practices and habits of the professoriate. So I think that it’s possible to be a trimmer, and a principled one. It doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to do some trimming will be successful in avoiding the charge of opportunism. But Aron, for example, was a successful one.
Geoff Kabaservice: Of course, much more popular then and now was Aron’s intellectual opponent, Sartre. And you know, Sartre basically subscribed to all kinds of what now would be regarded as extremely irresponsible views about Maoism and all the rest of it. But the student saying in 1968 was “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” And I think that’s sort of still the outlook of a lot of intellectuals at the universities nowadays.
Aurelian Craiutu: I’m afraid that’s right. By the way, I like that phrase, “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” It’s not clear that anyone uttered it in the streets; it is rumored that they did. But it reflects very well the spirit of those revolts and the spirit of today’s revolts. It so happens that today at my own university, this day we are having a strike by graduate students against the administration. And I see more or less the same confrontation from ’68 reopening again. There are serious issues here and both sides have valid points, I think, but both sides seem to be interested in carnival rather than in serious discussions and finding a way to prevent the descent into crisis. Aron was not successful in preventing that because, again, moderation is a difficult virtue. And people are more attracted to bold narratives — Sartre provided precisely that — than to nuances.
There’s a very interesting book published last year by a French journalist who works for Le Monde. His name is Jean Birnbaum. The book has a great title: Le Courage de la Nuance, in praise of nuance. And I think that that’s exactly what defines moderation: the search for nuance. It’s not easy. We like bold, stark contrasts: red, brown, black, white. We don’t like gray. I make this joke quite often: How many shades of gray are there? Maybe not 50. But there are quite a few shades of gray. And our eyes are not usually good at discerning those nuances of gray. Moderates have good eyes in seeing the shades of gray.
Geoff Kabaservice: We’ll come back to this question of colors. Is it possible in your view to be a moderate without believing in some form of liberalism?
Aurelian Craiutu: I’ve been struggling with this question. And I think that the thinkers I wrote about in Faces of Moderation — Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Norberto Bobbio, Michael Oakeshott, and Adam Michnik in Poland — might help us answer your question. There is a set of ideas that I would call liberal. By the way, liberalism doesn’t mean the same thing in Europe and in the Anglo-American world. In Europe it’s more right of the center, and in the UK and US it’s more left of the center. But be that as it may, there is a core set of ideas, I think, that undergird both liberalism and conservatism. Belief in limited power, I think, undergirds both, though there’s a progressive tendency within liberalism to trust power — more so than in conservatism. But limited power, legitimacy based on consent, individual consent — these are ideas that I think are linked to moderation and are part of both the liberal and the conservative canon.
On the other hand, I think it is possible to be conservative and moderate. And it is possible to be, let’s say, liberal and moderate. So the challenge is to look for nuances again. And I think that it’s quite possible to find those nuances if you look carefully. If you philosophize with a hammer, as it were, then you won’t find any nuances, you’ll find only stark contrast. But I think that’s something that reading the history of political thought has taught me. Nuances are there. It’s important for us to look for them and find them.
Geoff Kabaservice: Is it possible in your view to be a moderate and a populist?
Aurelian Craiutu: I’m not so sure about that. I think that it’s possible to be a moderate and have an appreciation for the — I wouldn’t say the plight, but for the difficult conditions of people who are at the bottom of society. But populism, as defined by scholars of this phenomenon, seems to be led by an immoderate impulse. It’s a search for purity. It’s a fear of the contaminated elites, cosmopolitan elites. It’s also a restricted way of thinking about political representation: “I alone can do that.” That’s the typical populist appeal by a leader: “I alone can fix it.” And that’s immoderate.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’d mentioned, of the figures you profiled in Faces of Moderation, Adam Michnik from Poland. And I think that’s the figure with whom most Americans would be least likely to be familiar. Can you tell us something about Michnik?
Aurelian Craiutu: Michnik is the only person I wrote in that book that is still alive. I think he was born in 1947 or ’48, probably. And he was a rebel in his youth, came from the left. And then he got involved in civil society and in defending the rights of the workers in Poland and became… I wouldn’t say a leader, but an important figure in the Solidarity movement.
Geoff Kabaservice: The Committee for the Defense of Workers evolved into Solidarity, right?
Aurelian Craiutu: Right, in ’76 initially and then 1980 for Solidarity. But he served, I think, five times in prison during communism. He refused to leave the country in the 1980s when offered the chance to do so. And he became the editor of a very important journal after 1989, Gazeta Wyborcza, which is still in print if I’m not mistaken. His star has declined in the last 20 years or so. He’s still active in politics, defending liberal values. He was a good friend of Václav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. They were active dissidents during communism, and that’s important. They defended the values of open society in dark times. And for that matter he was, let’s say, a bold moderate in the sense that he was unwilling to make any compromises with a vicious system.
Geoff Kabaservice: Michnik is the person who we associate most with this phrase, “self-limiting revolution.” Can you explain a little more about that?
Aurelian Craiutu: If I understand correctly, the term didn’t come from his work, it came from the work of a sociologist, Jadwiga Staniszkis. But I think that at the heart of this concept lies the idea that to make the system change you don’t need a revolution, you need to make small changes. So for example, at the heart of the agenda of the Committee for the Defense of Workers was the fact that the rights of the workers who were fired had to be defended. And in the case in which a worker was detained, there should have been some support for the families of the workers who are left without an income. And there was this emphasis on small steps, small gradual improvements: taking the Constitution seriously, taking rights seriously, asking the Communist regime to respect the rights enshrined in the Constitution, which were mostly on paper for a long time; those small steps, rather than changing the system wholesale. And that led in time to creating a spirit of compromise, which did not replace the bold opposition to the communist regime but made possible the famous roundtables. And this is something that is very much in this spirit of moderation.
Towards the end of the 1980s, after a decade of fighting, the leaders of Solidarity and the communist regime in Poland decided to sit down and talk — and this is the famous roundtable phenomenon that also occurred in Hungary at about the same time. And it is absolutely incredible, with the benefit of hindsight at least, that in June of 1989 — to be more precise, on June 4th, the same day of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing — there were elections in Poland. And for the first time the non-communists won the majority, to the point that on, I think it was August 30th, 1989, the first government led by a non-communist leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was installed in power. This was before the fall of the Iron Curtain, before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989. So it was the spirit of moderation and compromise, again, that was supported by opposition to communism that made possible this phenomena of the roundtables that took place in 1989, and that basically dismantled the communist regime.
Geoff Kabaservice: We owe a lot to the Poles, and to Solidarity. Looking through your book and finding quotes by Michnik, it’s amazing how closely they speak to our present horribly divided and polarized moment. I thought this was particularly interesting from Michnik: “We must reject one camp’s domination over another, with endless settling of scores. Our country must make room for everybody.” And I think that’s a lesson that neither the political left nor the right have learned right now, given that their entire political program seems to rest on eradication of the other side.
Aurelian Craiutu: Yes, it’s a good point. And I want to add to it the following: After ‘89, when Michnik became a very prominent political figure in the post-communist era, he decided to sit down and talk to his former enemy, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and we have the conversations that were published. Michnik took a lot of criticism for the decision to sit down and talk, without anger, with his former enemy. And he explained why he did that, and he explained that his anti-communism was not incompatible with talking to his former opponents and enemies. And I think that says a lot about Michnik as — I think in the book I called him a “revolutionary moderate” or a “moderate revolutionary,” I don’t know. I don’t think we have a label for Michnik as a thinker, a very colorful character.
Aurelian Craiutu: But there is one thing that worries me today, thinking about the challenges we are facing, and that is the feeling of being involved in an existential war: If the other side wins, we are done, we are finished, and we must win at all costs. This is the famous phenomenon of the Flight 93 syndrome, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Articulated by Michael Anton in the Claremont Review of Books.
Aurelian Craiutu: Right, it’s a famous article published in 2016: “This is our Flight 93 moment.” Well, when you think that in politics the stakes are so high that you cannot afford the opponent to win, that you must do anything in your power to prevent the other from winning, then that is a very dangerous moment. And we’ve seen this mentality — I would say “siege mentality” is the best word to describe it — coming back and returning on both the left and the right. The left thought in 2020 that if Trump wins again, it’s over. And I think the right thinks now that this is the moment — 2022, ’24 — to seek revenge. This is not good for the country. It’s not good for anyone, and it’s not the way to move forward.
Geoff Kabaservice: Michnik is still alive, as you say, and therefore has lived long enough to see the problems of democracy that have followed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. To go back to the color issue you raised, Michnik has a quote here in your book: Democracy “is neither black nor red. Democracy is gray, it is established only with difficulty, and its quality and flavor can be recognized best when it loses under the pressure of advancing red or black radical ideas.” He goes on to say that “Democracy is not infallible because in all debates all are equal. That is why it lends itself to manipulation, and may be helpless against corruption. That is why, frequently, it chooses banality over excellence, shrewdness over nobility, empty promise over true competence.” And I think that’s, again, something that we see in all democracies, really, around the world at this point.
Michnik also made the somewhat sad observation that “It is impossible in post-communist society today to speak about a political opponent with respect. It is impossible to seek a compromise that would lead to the common good; it is even impossible to converse without an internal conviction that our adversary is but a cynical cheat.” And I wonder how you feel about the role of moderation in this kind of disillusioned democratic moment?
Aurelian Craiutu: Well, starting from Michnik, I think that his example can teach us a lot about the importance of dialogue — dialogue with those who, again, espouse different views and basically do not agree with us. It’s very important not to transform an opponent into an enemy. I think there’s a clear distinction here between an opponent and enemy. An enemy is someone who represents an existential danger, but an opponent is someone who disagrees with us that we think one can have a dialogue with. So I think Michnik taught us that we need to do as much as we can to transform an enemy into an opponent, but resist the temptation of transforming an opponent into an enemy. So that’s the first lesson that I got from Michnik. And it’s very relevant for us today. We will have always people with whom we disagree on ideological grounds, but they are not our enemies, and they should never be seen as such.
Now, for us today, I think, to overcome the temptation to see opponents as enemies, we need to take issue with our bubbles and our echo chambers that are enhanced and augmented by the social media. I am amazed, again, by what we read, and I’m interested in what others read as well. And it’s interesting that people read what seems to confirm their biases, and what they like. If you are a liberal, it’s not easy to read the Claremont Review of Books, just to give an example, or American Greatness. And if you are a conservative, it’s not easy to read the Jacobin, for example, or even Dissent magazine, which is social democratic — Jacobin is very far left. But I think we should do precisely that. If you are a liberal, okay, you should read the journalists on the right. For many of my liberal friends, even reading The Economist is unacceptable because The Economist, for example, is seen as an expression of neoliberalism and liberals do not like neoliberals. But the same applies to my friends on the right for whom, for example, reading The New Yorker is a sign of elitism and something to be disparaged. So I think that we can learn from Michnik precisely this, that we need to kind of read across the aisle and try to talk to those who do not agree with us.
Geoff Kabaservice: I am a moderate too, as you know, and I’m all for getting out of one’s bubble. But I think there is a problem in today’s society when you actually have people who are not playing by “the rules of the game,” to quote Norberto Bobbio, who are coming to the whole question in bad faith because they actually seek the abolition of democracy in some form or other. And in today’s New York Times, there’s a quote from Lee Drutman, who’s at New America and is a friend of Niskanen. And he says that as an antidote to America’s democratic crisis, moderation is futile because “in today’s politics, with national identity, racial reckoning, and democracy itself front and center in partisan conflict, it is hard to understand moderation as a middle point when no clear compromise exists on what are increasingly zero-sum issues. This is where the moderation principle especially falls short. If one party or both parties have no interest in moderation or cross-partisan compromise, would-be ‘moderates’ cannot straddle an unbridgeable chasm.” How do you feel about that?
Aurelian Craiutu: I don’t feel good about that. I think I respect that position. I have to read the piece, but I think it exhibits the simplifications that we talked about at the very outset of our conversation. You don’t have to be a centrist to be a moderate. Again, if within both parties and on both sides of the aisle, if we had more people like former Senator Moynihan, for example… I think we’d be better off if we had people who understand that the truth is not one-eyed, that there are many eyes that can see the truth, and humility is required on both sides. Then, I think, moderates can make an impact, if that sensibility is exhibited on both sides.
You don’t need a strong party of moderates. This is something that I’ve always believed in. You need a certain sensibility, of course, which can be found on both sides. But also you need a core of people who you can’t take for granted. I think that exists even in the current form of the GOP, though less so. But those people are there, and you can’t assume that they will always vote the way in which the party wants them to vote. And I think that’s important. So it’s never easy. You don’t need a party of moderates, but you need a kind of a climate that promotes dialogue, humility, moderation, compromise, anything that opposes fanaticism, anything that opposes zealotry, Manichaeism, black-and-white pictures of reality. That’s always possible, but it’s not easy.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you do point out in your book that crises and strong ideological clashes are not necessarily bad for moderation, in fact.
Aurelian Craiutu: Or the contrary, yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, on the contrary.
Aurelian Craiutu: I think it’s an opportunity. A crisis is an opportunity for moderates to step up and make an impact. In American history, you have quite a few examples of moderates. Some of them were successful, some less so. But take a look, for example, at the lesson of George Washington in the farewell address. The farewell address is all about moderation. It’s all about trimming. It’s a bold vision of moderation, if you wish; it’s not a weak one. And for that matter, I think that Washington should have a major role and a major place in the pantheon of moderation.
Lincoln himself belongs to the tradition of political moderation, but it was a bold moderation that at some point was in favor of compromise and at another point in time dismissed compromise and stuck by the red line that he set for himself. So this example shows that moderation is, in fact, a bold virtue that requires tough decisions and involves a lot of risk. I could go on with other examples, of course: Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. I should still learn more about Clay before I voice an opinion on that. But the favorites are, again, for me, Washington and Lincoln.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Washington in his farewell address did speak of one of his positions that he was determined to maintain it “with moderation, perseverance, and firmness,” pointing out that those are not contradictory qualities.
Aurelian Craiutu: It’s true, Geoff, that he wrote that piece, or Hamilton helped him write that piece in 1796. This was before the crystallization of the political parties, though it was about that time that the parties crystallized and consolidated. But I think the difficult question would be to ask: How about today, when it’s all about power? The focus is less on ideas, it’s a focus on power, the study of power, gaining elections, maintaining elections is all that matters. Is that compatible with ethos of moderation? That’s a difficult question to which I don’t have an answer. But one concern that I have is that moderates cannot make it through primaries. Moderates can win general elections, but winning primaries is more difficult, because of the way in which the primaries are set up, than winning general elections. And perhaps something can change here.
I think that both parties — and we talked a little bit earlier on about how easy it is for newcomers to make inroads in the political system. Perhaps the gatekeepers must be reinstalled in both parties, or in all parties, and make the entry a little bit more difficult. But as of now, I think the movement is towards making the primaries even more democratic. So I’m a little bit skeptical in this regard. I think that moderates should be able to win in the primaries as well, but in the current system they are at a big disadvantage against radicals and zealots.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. But on the hand, one of the things I like about your approach to moderation is that you inspire moderates to take courage and be optimistic. And I think that’s a good note on which to end. Aurelian, thank you so much for joining me here today.
Aurelian Craiutu: It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and let’s hope for better days ahead.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegnieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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