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Is Political Moderation a Virtue These Days?


“[E]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!  And . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”  So said Senator Barry Goldwater a half a century ago when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1964.  He lost that election in a landslide, so extremism apparently wasn’t such a good idea then (though his campaign has been credited with kindling the rebirth of the modern conservative movement).

In the wake of our extremely polarizing election this year, is moderation a virtue today?  Many of us in the dispute resolution community generally are attracted to the idea of moderation as a way to satisfy many people’s differing interests.  On the other hand, many of us have our own strong partisan feelings – I certainly do – and it is very tempting to continue the political conflict.

Some Trump supporters feel that Clinton supporters are sore losers who make excuses for her loss and hypocritically reject the legitimacy of his election.  Some Clinton supporters feel that her electoral college loss was unfair, note that she won the popular vote, and are worried about what Mr. Trump will do as president.  So it’s understandable that many people on both sides would not want to “make nice” or seek compromise with the other side right now.

“In such a poisonous political culture, when moderation is precisely the treatment we need to cleanse America’s civic toxins, it invariably becomes synonymous with weakness, lack of conviction and timidity.”  So says Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former Republican official who is no fan of President-elect Trump.

“Moderation does not mean truth is always found equidistant between two extreme positions, nor does it mean that bold and at times even radical steps are not necessary to advance moral ends. . . . [T]here are general characteristics we associate with moderation, including prudence, the humility to recognize limits (including our own), the willingness to balance competing principles and an aversion to fanaticism.  Moderation accepts the complexity of life in this world and distrusts utopian visions and simple solutions.  The way to think about moderation is as a disposition, not as an ideology.  Its antithesis is not conviction but intemperance.”

Mr. Wehner quotes Indiana University political science Professor Aurelian Craiutu saying, “Moderates do not see the world in Manichaean terms that divide it into forces of good (or light) and agents of evil (or darkness).”  Mr. Wehner continues, “This allows authentic moderates to remain open to facts that challenge their assumptions and makes them more likely to engage in debate free of invective.  The survival of a functioning parliamentary system, Sir William Harcourt said, depends on ‘constant dining with the opposition.’”

He concludes, “Moderation is a difficult virtue for people to rally around, since by definition it doesn’t arouse fervor or zealous advocates.  But in a time of spreading resentments and rage, when truth is increasingly the target of assault and dialogue is often viewed as betrayal, moderation isn’t simply a decorous democratic quality;  it becomes an essential democratic virtue.  In this immoderate age, moderation must become America’s fighting faith.”

I feel conflicted.  This sounds good and I generally agree with Mr. Wehner’s argument.  But, despite my posts encouraging understanding and dialogue with people we disagree with (collected here), I don’t feel very moderate right now.

Perhaps it’s just the word.  Perhaps it would feel better if we referred to vigorous, principled advocacy in which we sincerely listen to people on the other side and treat them as respectfully as reasonably possible.  Is that being moderate – or just what people should normally do anyway?

What do you think?



John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE >

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