What It Means to Be Moderate

March 1, 2016 Can an essentially human trait describe a political stance?

|March 1, 2016

reality check-headerbar

By George Friedman

In Iran’s Feb. 26 elections, President Hassan Rouhani’s moderates were said to have defeated the extremists. Moderation is taken as obviously praiseworthy, so the real meaning of that phrase was that the the good guys beat the bad guys. But what makes Rouhani a good guy and his opponents bad guys? From the American point of view, it’s that Rouhani signed the nuclear treaty while his opponents wanted to block it. Of course that would logically mean that Americans who opposed the treaty would regard Rouhani as the bad guy and his opponents who opposed the treaty good guys. I don’t suppose that would be the case, so we are left to search for meaning.
 
This discussion is important in most political contexts because moderation is seen as a virtue and extremism as a vice, to paraphrase and reverse Barry Goldwater. This is a concept that crosses national and cultural lines. Moderate political parties are seen as praiseworthy and extreme ones are dangerous. To understand what is meant by moderate, we should begin by understanding what we mean by extremist. It would seem to me that the most reasonable definition of extremist is someone who wants to radically change the status quo. A moderate is someone, therefore, who defends the status quo or wants, at most, cautious change.
 
If this is the definition of moderation, then moderation is simply conservatism in its original meaning. It is a defense of the regime as formed and opposed to either rapid or extreme change. But that can’t be the definition because it would leave us thinking of Nazi Party member Heinrich Himmler as a moderate. After all, he wanted to preserve the regime as it was and permit only slow and limited change if any at all. And in this game, Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler, would be regarded as an extremist and therefore not a nice fellow. I didn’t know him, so he may not have been nice, but from where I sit, if he was an extremist, he is the best defense of extremism possible.
 
There is the definition of the moderate as the centrist. In this model, there is a left wing and a right wing and the moderate is at the center. There are two problems with this theory. The first is the idea that there is some continuum of ideologies from left to right. The idea of left and right originated in the French Revolution. There was a tennis court where parties met, with the supporters of monarchy on the far right and the supporters of republicanism on the far left. In the center were parties that either couldn’t make up their mind or wanted to have their cake and eat it too.
 
The Paris tennis court has ever after defined politics as leftist and rightist. In this configuration, Hitler and Dwight Eisenhower would have sat near each other on the right, with Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt together, closer to each other than to the right wing. In the center would have been the listless – choose here the colleague you least like – who had no clear ideology, living in that space where the two wings cancel out gravity. Therefore, the center holds no weight.
 
The tennis court configuration has never made sense, any more than calling Stalin and Roosevelt leftists. There is no continuum and no center. Roosevelt and Eisenhower shared an ideology of liberal democracy, with quibbles on some details. If you would like, Hitler on the right had more in common with Stalin on the left than either with Eisenhower or Roosevelt. There is fascism, communism and liberal democracy, not on a continuum – as radically separate alternatives.
 
We now come down to a potential definition of moderation: support for liberal democracy. I like that because I like liberal democracy and everyone else loves moderation. But that ascribes a virtue to liberal democracy that it would accept only in power. Neither the American nor French revolutionaries were moderate. They were prepared to go to war and kill their enemies in the name of what they believed. And in this, Goldwater was right – liberal democracy is an immoderate commitment to certain values, particularly when it is an attempt to gain them. It is hard to think of Thomas Jefferson as a moderate, except in demeanor perhaps.
 
And demeanor gives us another way of thinking of moderation. The confusion may rest in that we have taken a human characteristic and tried to transfer it to political life. Moderation, as Aristotle taught, was a virtue that all humans should have. The intemperate threaten the city not because of their beliefs, but in the manner in which they believe. The timid are dangerous not because of their beliefs, but in the weakness of their souls. And as weak men they cannot defend the city. Excessive spiritedness and insufficient spirit are both dangerous. A moderate amount of spirit, carefully calibrated to circumstances, able to exert itself and calm itself as needed to achieve the collective good, is desirable. Moderation in all things is not a concept limited to a single political party. Maximilien Robespierre was a liberal democrat. Moderation is a condition of the soul needed by all humans and lacked by most.
 
When we translate this to politics it becomes difficult, because in our time politics and policies are one, and policies are seen as moral imperatives that must be pursued at all costs. This was not always the case. The idea of moderation reigned, but not always for the best reasons, since the corrupt can be moderate out of calculation, and the honest can be excessively proud of their honesty.
 
There is no handbook for moderation. I went into Brooks Brothers one day (where such things are still discussed) and saw a book on how to be a gentleman. Having a problem with that concept as well as with my necktie, I bought the book. It contained helpful tips such as don’t call your hostess ugly even if she is. But what the book didn’t say is that to be a gentleman you must have that embedded in your soul, if not by birth then by learned inclination. It was not a matter of dress or beliefs or knowing how to eat soup like the English. Being a gentleman was a generosity of spirit, knowing how to be a friend and knowing how to be an enemy, and knowing when each is appropriate.
 
I think in the end that is what moderation is, and it is not found in a political posture but in the character of all humans. It is what we search for in a president because he above all must know how to be a friend or an enemy. Moderates are not ideologues but gentleman and ladies of principle. There is a world of difference between the two.