Through most of history, western culture has recognized the value of moderation and the evils of excess. Robert McCluer Calhoon, University of North Carolina, Greensboro recognizes its origins in the Peloponnesian War in the Fifth Century B.C.E. (Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries, 2008). The Icelandic Sagas are full, for example, of such lessons, the positive rewards of moderate behavior and the ills that follow from immoderate behavior. In politics, the success of the American political system has been based not on irreconcilable bickering between polar opposites and ideologues but upon the system of give and take, and compromise, embodied by moderate politicians.
Political moderation balances the extremes; it, not rancorous polarization, that makes the world go around.
Harry Clor (On Moderation: Defending an Ancient Virtue in a Modern World, 2008), points out that critics have argued that “moderate” and “extremist” are “phenomena wholly subjective and situation-bound, utterly dependent upon variable opinions or commitments, circumstances and partisan perceptions of circumstances.” People see moderation as weakness. But as Clor argues, a moderate politician “builds consensus and unifies; he or she seeks agreement across partisan lines and speaks to the people in a nonconfrontational, noninflammatory way intended to be unifying.”
It is obvious that moderation has no place in modern Republican discourse, whose rhetoric is based on confrontational and inflammatory statements, the more outrageous the better.
But moderation is not betrayal of ideology. The Founding Fathers hammered out a Constitution through compromise. None of the authors of the Constitution got everything they wanted. If the minority would have been unwilling, as are modern Republicans, to compromise, it would never have been ratified. We would still be waiting. Compromise was essential. I will argue here that not only bound up with America’s founding but that it is not moderation that is the enemy of a modern liberal democracy, but extremism.
The Republican Party’s purity standards do not allow for moderation in approaches to America’s problems. The “take no prisoners” approach of Republican victories has morphed into a “scorched earth” leave nothing for the enemy approach in defeat. If they cannot have the country then they will ensure that there is no country left to govern by bringing to a halt any process they disagree with. This goes far beyond filibustering, extending as it does to investigations and inquiries into the behavior of those in power.
It is ironic and troubling that the Republicans accuse the Democrats and President Obama of being extremist ideologues, comparing the president to Hitler and Stalin and the Democrats to Communists and Nazis while themselves evincing all the attributes of these authoritarian political movements.
It is the Republicans, after all, who insist on obedience to ideology, not the Democrats, who embody a far wider range of political views, from moderate to extreme. Finding a moderate Republican these days has become very difficult indeed, and the charge of moderation when laid by the base against a Republican politician is often a kiss of death.
One example of this trend was discussed yesterday in the New York Times: Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. Lugar is, as the Times reports, “standing against his party on a number of significant issues at a politically dangerous time to do so.” Such a thing is, sadly enough, newsworthy in this day and age, especially with regards a man who has shown himself “A reliable conservative for decades on every issue.”
For his sins (for example, his desire to ratify the START treaty) the Times tells us that,
Mr. Lugar’s recent breaks with his party have stirred the attention of Indiana Tea Party groups, who have him in their sights. “Senator Lugar has been an upstanding citizen representing us in D. C.,” said Diane Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Tea Party. “But over the years, he has become more moderate in his voting.”
The sin of moderation. Who would have thought?
Even Republicans are shocked and disturbed that a stalwart like Lugar could be targeted.
“If Dick Lugar,” said John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, “having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.”
I am reminded by all this of the French Revolution, which began moderately enough and then became more extreme, to the extent that those who began the revolution became its victims, and moderation the enemy. Even a radical liberal like Thomas Paine found himself arrested, the same Thomas Paine who had defended the French Revolution from conservative Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790 ) in his Rights of Man (1791). I am reminded also of the McCarthyism of the very conservative 1950s, or going further back, of the witch-hunts of the 17th and previous centuries.
History offers abundant lessons beyond the few I mention here of the dangers of extremism run amok. No one is safe, not even the current guardians of the cause. Anyone can be denounced. Anyone can instantly find themselves a Canaanite, vomited out of the Holy Land.
Enemies and traitors lurk around every corner and even under your bed. Eager to remain in favor, the extremists outdo each other by being ever more extreme.
Clor argues that “‘you cannot get it all’ from any social arrangements, no matter how well conceived” and he is right. As I argued above, the Constitution itself is evidence of this. “Concessions are made and compromises achieved” in Clor’s words. It is difficult to see today where compromise will come from. President Obama tried in 2008 and in the two years since. Nobody is really surprised at this point by his failure. And it is difficult to see how the United States can survive without it.
The world will not stand still for us while we engage in deadlock, and it will be difficult for President Obama to go forward while the Republican House wants to go backward. But we know things can get worse. We know, however much the stimulus helped, that we are not out of the woods yet. We have only to look to Europe, to Greece, to Ireland, to Iceland, to see what a truly collapsed economy looks like. The Republicans seem to be steering us in that direction and anyone who doesn’t jump on board the bandwagon has betrayed the ideals of the revolution.
A world without moderation is a bleak place to contemplate, and probably a worse place to live, as we are all likely to find out unless a Republican Edward R. Murrow reveals himself and say “Enough is enough.”