Thursday, August 24, 2017

Manifesto of a Moderate

Introductory note: I started this piece to make some comments on David Brooks's column "What Moderates Believe." (Link at the end, as well.) However, in the course of putting down my thoughts, this effort burgeoned into a (somewhat) independent piece that I now recognize as a manifesto of sorts. Also, as I indicate through my personal history, it allows me to reclaim a long-lost (or more accurately--discarded) mantle. I have for some time described myself as 'a conservative by temperament, a liberal by education, a pragmatist by experience, a radical in perspective, a realist in assessments, a believer in action, and an idealist in values' (and whatever else might strike me at the moment, although any interlocutor has long since lost interest). Perhaps I can now just say 'I'm a moderate.' 

I was a teenage moderate.
In fact, because my political apprenticeship began even before my teen years, I can say that I was a pre-teen moderate. You see, my parents were "moderate Republicans," a now extinct species now found only in history books. I began my political education early, following around my dad, who got mixed up in the great battle for the soul of the Republican Party that broke into the open in 1964. In that year, the radicals (ironically labeled "conservatives") began their takeover of the party in the person of Barry Goldwater. My dad worked on behalf of the moderate Republican, Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania, as a paid employee as well as a supporter. Of course, as you know, even though Goldwater failed miserably in the election, the radicals eventual took control of the party, and the moderates died out or left. I left.

I say all of this because in reading Dave Brooks's column, I realize that I'm still a moderate at heart (and in the head, too). Like Brooks, I initially recoiled at the term because 'moderate' can be seen as a synonym for indifferent or as one who will settle for simply splitting the difference. And anyone who knows me or comes across what I write about politics I hope will not conclude that I'm indifferent or merely want to split the difference about political issues. Despite his reticence about the term moderate, Brooks argues that the term still fits, and he goes on to describe what he sees as its attributes. He convinces me, and below I reflect further on his insights.

Brooks describes the opposite of moderates as "warriors." Back in the 60s, we referred to them as "extremists." Brooks also (rightly) labels them as "authoritarians." The concept is the same. Whether at the extremes of the political spectrum--right or left--or as they're displayed in adjoining locations on a circular diagram of political attitudes (my preference), these extremists are the ones who are spoiling for a fight. They may be radical populists (which demonstrates how right and left can meet at the extremes), fascists, or radical leftists. But under any configuration, they promote division, violence, disruption, and seek raw power (as in control). Along with Brooks, I say a pox on all their houses.

"Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world." And this is a key point--the world, including the socio-economic-political world, is complex. And 'complex' is not easy to define (hey, it's complex!). But a quick stab at a definition might be that it's a system in which there are few direct connections between the parts of a vast system. In other words, what we do 'here' has consequences that we may feel (unexpectedly) 'there.' Sometimes a hard push yields little or no immediate result and yet in another circumstance, the softest push can send the system spinning out of control. What this means in practice is that we humans will have a hard time predicting all of the consequences of our innumerable actions. We often discover emergent properties--the 'I never expected that' surprises, or in Donald Rumsfield's nomenclature, 'the unknown unknowns.' Brooks argues that this fundamental attribute of our political reality should lead us to the following values and principles.

"The truth is plural." In life, no one's right all of the time and no one is wrong all of the time (although some--like you know who--certainly push the edge of the envelope). Add to this the dynamics of changing circumstances--how we solved a problem yesterday may not work in the conditions of today--means we have to keep our options open. We have to be humble.

"Politics is a limited activity." In short, the world's problems will not be solved by politics; personal happiness will not come from politics alone. Politics, like life, can have its uplifting moments that raise our consciousness and provide us experiences of personal growth. But most of the time, it's like daily life, a matter of performing household chores and earning a buck. Not romantic or uplifting but necessary. Politics, in other words, is a humbling activity that may, if we're lucky, provide us with some glimpses of the promised land.

Likewise, government is neither a panacea nor a curse. It partakes of both humankind's fallen nature--our finitude--and it can express our highest aspirations, but neither attribute is realized perfectly or finally. Government, argues Brooks--and I agree--is best seen as a useful tool, not an end in itself, but a means that may be more or less effective in different situations. For instance, government may compete with the market as means of addressing a collective problem. The relative merits of each will vary according to circumstances.

"Creativity is syncretistic." Good ideas come from diverse sources. If you keep an open, inquiring mind, you might discover that the over side has some useful ideas.

"In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high." This is true, and it's why those in government have to exhibit the highest levels of discretion, modesty, and insight. Government, misused, can lead to death and destruction. A healthy skepticism--but not cynicism--should be the watchword. Also, a high degree of realism is required. The recognition of constraints on choices of action and the reality and uncertainty of consequences is a hallmark of political wisdom. Ideologues (closely related to extremists) lose their suppleness of response and create expectations based on beliefs that lack the requisite humility to prove successful in changing circumstances.

"Truth before justice." Or I might say the converse, 'no justice without truth.' But of course, 'truth' doesn't come leaping into our arms like a long lost lover. It must be stalked. It is an elusive entity that often proves ephemeral and fleeting. The quest for truth is never completed, but if we can't at least report of its outlines--even as seen through a glass darkly--then we lose the means of finding our bearings. We have to learn to live in the twilight zone between despairing ignorance and unwarranted certainty.

"Beware the danger of a single identity." I would expand this to say that we should beware any mono-myth, any story that attributes a single cause or single identity to any person or phenomenon. Each of us is a complex, the product of innumerable streams of influence, and to adopt any identity or causal explanation to the exclusion of all others is folly. (These various tributaries also make us interesting--and often vexing--to ourselves as well as to others.)

"Partisanship is necessary but blinding." "Necessary"? I'm not sure, but certainly inevitable. Three ingredients guide all political decision-making: interests, passions, and reason. Our 'interests' are defined--in the simplest terms--by money. 'Whose ox gets gored?' as my medieval history prof used to put it. 'Passions' are characteristics such as seeking after fame or glory, power, control--Plato's thymos. The passions motivate all political actors in some measure. And 'reason.' I see reason as the crucial third that allows parties to mediate the differences that arise from the interests and the passions. In other words, 'reason' is not merely a matter of logic but a means of justifying and reconciling positions prompted by the passions and the interests. Thus, I doubt the existence of 'pure reason' in politics. (In this, I think that I'm going back as far as Hume--if not Aristotle--and as contemporary as the work of Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, authors of The Enigma of Reason.) Moderates seek for reason to prevail, although it can never vanquish the passions and interests. This is why, as Brooks notes, moderates are never comfortable members of a party (and are often distrusted by the believers). I find this entirely accurate. I was once a committed Republican, but I was too moderate. Now I've been a Democrat for a long time, but I always find myself a bit uncomfortable at meetings of Democrats because I can't help thinking that one tenant or another is a bunch of hooey that's a pretext for some interest, passion, or outdated ideology. It's always a struggle to balance the common interest (to the extent one exists, as it always does, but in varying degrees) with private ('party') interests. This is why politics is the art of the possible, the arena of compromise (to the extent it functions, unlike, for instance, the current Congress), and why legislation is often compared to sausage. It's also why political decisions are never entirely rational. (A counter-example, anyone?)

"Humility is the fundamental virtue." See all of the above, and as Brooks goes on to say, "Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding."

"Moderation requires courage." So true. Here it is over 50 years after my first (naive) self-identification as a 'moderate' that I feel like coming back to claim the term. But, fortunately, I've learned that popularity and acceptance are fleeting; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." And because moderates are by nature dissenters, internally and as well as externally, they do obtain a certain pariah status that requires some courage to maintain; it is not easy to cross currents.

And, finally, I agree with Brooks's peroration:
If you have elected a man who is not awed by the complexity of the world, but who filters the world to suit his own narcissism, then woe to you, because such a man is the opposite of the moderate voyager type. He will reap a whirlwind.


Instead of ideology, moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.
NYTIMES.COM