RECAP: “Moderation in America,” Zoom Colloquium with Indiana University Prof. Aurelian Craiutu

The specter of Barry Goldwater hangs over the recent history of moderation. “Extremism in defense of liberty,” he proclaimed in his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention, “is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” As Indiana University Professor of Political Science Aurelian Craiutu noted in introducing his October 16 talk, today’s climate of political intransigence and hyperbole does moderates no favors. They are deemed, on the one hand, indecisive and soft-hearted; on the other hand opportunistic and devoid of substance, not democratic enough in their lacking the true political compass necessary to bring about reform. Over the course of his presentation, however, Prof. Craiutu showed that re-visiting and de-bunking this conventional image—or, perhaps better, this popular misconception—of moderates as weak and ineffectual reveals a complex virtue that transcends the political categories of left and right and that may, in fact, be necessary for contemporary society to adequately address its equally complex problems.

Moderation found its way into American political thought through a lineage that spans from Tacitus, for whom it was the “most difficult virtue,” to Montesquieu, who thought it the most valuable virtue to legislators. If moderation’s Aristotelian, ethical dimension is its most familiar, the founding generation likewise saw in it a distinctly institutional and constitutional significance: the animating principle of a government that places power in different hands so as to avoid it being abused and, in doing so, is capable of governing without violence and with openness toward multiple religions and interests. This was the moderation of John Adams, who saw it as a virtue “without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”

Still, this leaves questions unanswered: What does moderation presuppose? What do moderates stand for? Can moderation even exist in contemporary America?

In terms of a central tenet, Prof. Craiutu explained that moderation requires a courageous defiance of moral absolutes. It is thus without a precise algorithm that can be applied indiscriminately in all situations, meaning that what was considered moderate in, say, the 1920s or 1930s is no longer moderate today. In practice, because moderation is a non-conformist virtue that resists the litmus test of ideological purity and that thrives on partisanship and dialogue with opponents, the moderate legislator has worn many different masks over time: the prudent man (Aristotle); the nautical trimmer who leans against the weight of others to preserve evenness and evade danger (Marcus of Halifax); the skeptic (Hume); the defender of healthy pluralism (Madison); the individual who stands above the fray and contemplates with equanimity the faults and virtues of aristocracy and democracy (Washington); and the critic of zealotry (Burke). In thinking about the on-the-ground political ramifications of moderation, Prof. Craiutu argued that there is one important thing to keep in mind: while it might be easy to equate moderation with centrism, this would be an oversimplification; moderation can easily and often does exist to the left or right of center.

As for concrete political agendas that have embodied the theory of moderation, Prof. Craiutu pointed to the middle road doctrine between revolution and reaction in France; the social market economy that led to Germany’s post-WW II recovery; the Prague Spring of 1968 and the later rise of Václav Havel; the solidarity and self-limiting revolution of Communist Poland in the 1970s and 1980s; and the tenure of Tony Blair in late-20th and early-21st-century Great Britain. Zooming out, what each of these examples and figures shared was a willingness to operate without fixed ideological contours that enabled sensible decisions to be made within rapidly evolving political contexts. Weaving in Lincoln, Prof. Craiutu went on to describe how, in understanding the multidimensionality of the public good, the moderate tends to “think politically”—i.e., in terms of the lesser evil vs. the ideal outcome; in terms of peaceful reforms vs. revolutionary moves; and in terms of a decent vs. a perfectly just society.

This ability to think politically—to foster a flexible mindset that opposes fanaticism and that is capable of correcting mistakes—was one of many advantages that Prof. Craiutu assigned to moderation in his talk. It likewise accommodates a wide range of political ideas because it has affiliation with and affinity for multiple stops on the political spectrum. It is conducive to civility, compromise, and tradeoffs as it fights through echo chambers in insisting that all sides be heard. And while it is a virtue of humility and self-restraint, these qualities manifest themselves in a determination to swim against the current.

But what are moderation’s chances of rising to prominence today and, beyond this, what might moderation even look like in our present moment. What we need, Prof. Craiutu emphasized, is not the moderate cowardice that Dr. King denounced in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: the moderation of those white men who tolerated injustice out of false modesty and who didn’t care about reducing inequality. We instead need a muscular, radical form of moderation that doesn’t call for illusory bipartisanship but that actively trims between the extremes, operating with proportionality, strength of character, and even irreverence in challenging the dogmatic politics of us vs. them.

In further developing this vision of a current strain of moderation, Prof. Craiutu left the audience with the action points that Saul Alinsky laid out in his 1971 Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals: (1) Refuse to define a single best way, accept facts and modify beliefs as facts change; (2) Avoid sectarianism; (3) Don’t be a perfectionist, work with the world as it is vs. how it should be; (4) Embrace eclecticism over ideological purity; (5) Acknowledge that political issues have more than one side and learn to use partisanship to your advantage.

Click here for a full version of Prof. Craiutu’s talk.