Political extremism and moderation

This is a time of extremism. Marchers with torches and swastikas chant “Jews will not replace us,” and the president sees there some “very fine people.” Maybe my own condemnatory blog posts seem extreme. Where today is the space for moderation?

The ancient Greeks deemed moderation in all things a virtue. Yet they valorized some pretty extreme doings — like the Trojan War — perhaps a wee overreaction, that?

American political extremism came to the fore in 1964, with Barry Goldwater labeled an extremist (or extremist-backed) candidate. He pushed back by declaring that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

He had a point; yet this sidestepped the real issue. As an old song said, “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.” It’s not whether one’s views on issues are consonant with liberty and justice (and who doesn’t think so?) or are closer to the political center or the fringes. Either can equally inspire zealotry. The moderation to be sought is not moderation of ideas but of approach. It’s the mentality you bring to the political arena.

David Brooks

A recent David Brooks column is illuminating. “Moderates do not see politics as warfare,” he writes. “Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.” Here, with my own take, are the aspects of moderation Brooks identifies:

“The truth is plural.” When it comes to big public questions, there usually isn’t a single simple answer. Competing viewpoints may each be at least partially right. Hence “creativity is syncretistic” — combining pieces from varied viewpoints to produce a way forward which, while imperfect from the standpoint of any one of them, is pragmatically workable, given all the political and situational constraints. Again — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Examples included Simpson-Bowles and, yes, Obamacare.)

“In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high.” The potential for doing harm, particularly by government, exceeds the potential for doing good. Especially given the law of unintended consequences. This suggests restraint when looking to address any problem through politics.

“Truth before justice.” No cause is well served by rejecting or suppressing inconvenient facts. And “partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins.” It’s the “what about” syndrome, as when any derogation of Trump is answered with “what about Hillary this” and “what about Hillary that.” Another refusal to confront truth. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“Humility is the fundamental virtue.” The world’s complexities defy our understanding. And for all the certainty I feel about some beliefs — evolution, for example — I recognize that people hold opposite beliefs with equal moral certainty. If I think they’re nuts, they think I am, and there’s no intellectual Supreme Court to resolve it. I recall Cromwell saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken;” and apply it to myself.


I’d like to add here, “So respect others and their views.” However, I cannot; not when marchers with swastikas chant about Jews. But what I will do yet again is to quote Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is indeed a key principle that is succumbing as American politics polarizes into extremism. There are many reasons why that’s happening. Brooks has elsewhere suggested one: in an age of so much moral uncertainty, some embrace absolutism in an effort to find solid ground. Thus we get the Savonarolas who want to punish and stamp out anyone not embracing their version of truth — as in the recent case of the engineer fired from Google for writing what some read as a politically incorrect memo.

Well, you do not have to respect those you disagree with — like those marching neo-Nazis. You can call them what they are, and condemn their ideas. But what you do have to do is accept their humanity and their right to be who they are. Not fire them from their jobs or jail them — or plow your car into them.

Wage war, if you must, against ideas — not against people. That is the moderation I advocate.

Never forget that if those neo-Nazis can be fired, punished, or repressed, the same principle can be turned around one day and applied to you.

“First they came for the Jews . . . . “

4 Responses to “Political extremism and moderation”

  1. Lee Says:

    I am not sure I can agree with “In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high.” The US Constitution Bill of Rights is a pretty high high to beat! In more modern times, laws that protect children, feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate the children, etc. are pretty hard to beat. Sure, our government screws up and is sometimes malicious; there are many examples. However, these tend to pale in comparison.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    How about times MORE modern still? Like today’s? My main hope in politics today is to curtail the damage to all that is good and right.

  3. Lee Says:

    Under Obama … we saved the bulk of the nation from far worse ravages of the mortgage-backed securities fiasco, which for the most part was not against laws established in the past, merely a free-for-all among private entities. We have a first-attempt at universal health care; improvements are needed but it is a start that I am proud to have witnessed. We have marriage equality despite any private citizens who do not wish to recognize it. We took strong steps towards cleaning up the planet with improving fuel efficiency standards. We extended the concept of rural electrification to broadband internet access.

    Under Trump … he may yet get congress to fix our broken immigration laws.

  4. Terri Wilson Says:

    Under Obama, the treasonous Marxist Muslim DICtator, Christians, Caucasians, and police became “the enemy” while abuse of power by the executive branch became the rule. In addition, illegal aliens, especially those not willing to assimilate to American culture, as well as dangerous criminals, were purposely brought in to endanger American citizens, increase budget costs, particularly Welfare expenditures, cause division among the various people living here, and dilute and, thus, weaken the fabric of our society. The plan was for Barry Soetero, alias “Barack Obama,” to destroy the country from within while undermining the Constitution and moving America as far to the left as possible until the Socialist/Communist transformation was complete. President Trump is doing all in his power to STOP this transformation, which is why the leftist mainstream media are colluding with the leftist Deep State to concoct crimes in order to frame Trump, impeach him, and ILlegally UNseat a DULY-ELECTED President of the United States of America!!! This has NEVER been done before, and it CAN NOT and WILL NOT STAND!!!:-(((

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