Is Moderation a Coherent Answer To Present Problems?
This is the third panel of Beyond Left And Right: Moderation in an Era of Crisis and Extremism, a Niskanen Center conference held on February 25, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Moderator: Geoff Kabaservice
Panelists: Aurelian Craiutu, Jacob Levy, Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you very much and welcome to the last panel of the afternoon, which will grapple with the question: “Is moderation a coherent answer to present problems?” It really is a pleasure to be here with my fellow panelists, and I mean that in the sense that conversation is one of life’s the highest pleasures. Michael Oakeshott, a philosopher whom many of us have studied at one point or another, once said something like, “At its best, conversation is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” This is certainly unrehearsed, and I can’t think of any better intellectual adventurers to be up here than the folks with me now.
Geoff Kabaservice: So, going right to left… Sam Tanenhaus, whom I met when I began to work as his research assistant, longer ago than either of us cares to remember, on his William F. Buckley Jr. biography — which is now reaching completion or is at least within appreciable striking distance of its end. Sam has been a veritable intellectual titan — you can look at the biographical listings on the handout sheet for all of these panelists — but Sam is certainly somebody whose interests influenced my thinking immensely and I’m delighted to have him here with us. Jacob Levy is a professor of political theory at McGill University in Montreal, and is also an eminent political thinker when it comes to some of the issues that we’ve been touching upon, particularly issues relating to multiculturalism and pluralism. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most influential public thinkers in this country, I would say, though he was originally born in England. I started reading his blog back in 2000 or thereabouts — I was one of the Daily Dishsubscribers, which is a proud claim — and I was also deeply influenced by Andrew’s book on The Conservative Soul. And then Aurelian Craiutu, someone I learned about when David Brooks started writing about him. I figured, here’s this philosopher of moderation, I ought to get to know him. He is professor of political science at Indiana University and, again, one of the great thinkers about moderation. I would really call him as much of an intellectual historian and biographer as a political scientist.
Geoff Kabaservice: So, Aurelian Craiutu, let’s get started with you. You have written eloquently about what moderation is and has been through the centuries. And although right now moderation is not necessarily in the highest of repute, it was historically considered one of the great attributes of leadership and a decent society. So although we’re going to start with the positive side of moderation and maybe get around to criticizing it later, I wonder if you could just give us what seems to you a succinct description of moderation and its virtues.
Aurelian Craiutu: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. And what a rare event it is to have a full-day conference on a virtue in which very few people believe (that is, moderation) in general, and in Washington in particular, in the sight of the beautiful Capitol building behind us. I have a great advantage in coming to this panel. I’m a tenured professor, I come from the Midwest (I’m a Hoosier by adoption), and I am one of those that have a “consciousness of shipwreck.” I was very lucky to grow up during the Cold War in a communist country — in Romania, to be more precise — so for me to speak about the need for moderation is an oxymoron. You don’t need to convince me that moderation is a virtue, unlike for most of you who grew up in normal, open societies who take moderation for granted or tend to dismiss it because it’s not sexy enough. Our world is actually made of foxes and lions. We know those who use force to address their agenda. We know those who use cunning and deceit to advance their agendas. But moderation is the symbol of a lamb, and who cares about the lambs of our political lives? I think that only those with a “consciousness of shipwreck,” as Ortega said, have a sense of where salvation can come from — and those are the people who suffered under regimes in which freedom was denied to most people. I am one of those lucky survivors of the Cold War era that doesn’t need to be convinced of moderation.
Aurelian Craiutu: Now, two things I would like to say just to advance the conversation here… For me, moderation is a balancing act. Balance is a virtue that has been discussed in some of the panels this morning. David Brooks alluded to the need for a balance in society. Without the sense of balance, moderation cannot exist. For me, the image of the moderate is the funambulist, the tightrope walker. Try to put yourself in the mind of a tightrope walker for a moment. You are up there, exposed to the crossfires of the extremes, and you need to keep your balance. Once you are on a tightrope, you can’t go backwards — I’ve been told it is possible, but I would not advise you to do so — you need to go forward. In order to keep your balance, you need three things. First of all, you need to have courage. Not everyone can go up there and keep one’s balance. Number two, you need to have a sense of the winds. If the wind blows in one direction, you need to lean into the other direction in order to keep your balance. And thirdly, you need a little bit of improvisation, a little bit of art. You can’t just be there; you need a bit of luck as well. So all these things, I think, epitomize for me the virtue of moderation.
Aurelian Craiutu: For me, the moderate is a trimmer. A trimmer is a nautical metaphor that was put forward in the seventeenth century in the classic text by the Marquess of Halifax, and taken up again in the twentieth century by Michael Oakeshott. The trimmer seeks to keep the ship of state on an even keel. And this is how I see the work of the Niskanen Center and its associates. We are trimmers in the sense that when the ship leans in one direction, we try to lean into the opposite direction in order to prevent the ship from capsizing. This is not a virtue that has no pole star. Yascha Mounk and David Brooks referred this morning to the need to affirm what are the pole stars of moderation. And of course, moderates have many attributes that they can bring to this discussion. I want to say one more thing about moderation, in the opening of our discussion. We talked a lot about the identification of moderation and the center, but at least as I understand it, moderation is a virtue that should not be identified with the center of the political spectrum. There are moderates on the left side, in the center, and on the right side of the political spectrum. And I think this is a topic that remains to be discussed by our panel and by all of us after the conference ends.
Aurelian Craiutu: And last but not least, I think it’s important to remind all of us that there is a long tradition of political moderation that starts way back in ancient Greece. It accommodates different religious and political traditions. There is a tradition of moderation in Confucianism, there’s a tradition of moderation in Judaism, and I’m told (and I tend to believe those who say this) that there’s a tradition of moderation even in the Islamic political thought tradition. That would be a short book, but still it’s something to discover, I think. So if we look at this tradition of moderation, I prefer to conceptualize moderation as an archipelago. There are lots of islands, lots of clusters of ideas, but we don’t see the connections between those islands. I think this is the task of some of us who identify ourselves as historians of political thought, to try to bring to light those connections between the islands that constitute the archipelago of moderation. So rather than talking about moderation in the singular, I’d like to invite the panelists and the audience to think of moderation in the plural. We need to talk about the faces of moderation, and the center is just one of them.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you, Aurelian. The Niskanen Center, with the sense of tolerance for which it’s renowned, recently published an essay by our senior fellow Jacob Levy entitled “Why I Am Not a Moderate.” Jacob, can you expand upon why moderation does not seem to you to be this kind of virtue that Aurelian is talking about, or why moderation doesn’t seem like something you would want to identify yourself with?
Jacob Levy: I share many of Aurelian’s intellectual heroes. I draw from a slightly different canon and tradition of the great moderates. Montesquieu is the signature person in my intellectual influence. Judith Shklar is one of the great moderates and one of my most important influences. The part of moderation that is a set of qualifiers on how we do politics, what virtues we should look for in either a leader or a thinker — those are objects of great appeal and nothing that I said in “Why I Am Not a Moderate” casts aspersions on any of those. However, I think that moderation treated as a banner unto itself — as a label around which to organize political activity, not only to qualify how we do political activity — tends to be much more dangerous and sometimes pernicious.
Jacob Levy: The great era of ostensible moderation that this city looks back on as its golden age, through the fog of nostalgia, was the era when bipartisanship was possible because of the way the Democratic Party was organized around the exclusion of African-Americans. That is to say, you had conservative Democrats making bipartisanship possible because they were Southern Democrats, because the Democratic coalition was premised on the sustenance of Jim Crow. The aspiration to return to the days when great congressional leaders would sit around and talk calmly with each other is an aspiration to return to something that we really ought to look back on as being a sign of when things were terribly wrong in American politics. They were nicer in this city, they were nicer for the elites in this city. That doesn’t mean that it was a better kind of politics.
Jacob Levy: Moderation, treated as the way that you organize your whole political activity, encourages one to think, as Aurelian said, that “I am always on a tightrope.” The tightrope walker, Aurelian tells us, feels an actual wind and therefore might sometimes lean from one side to the other. But the person who imagines themselves as a tightrope walker doesn’t feel real winds. What they do is they constantly look for ways to say, “There must be equally extreme bad things that I define myself in joint opposition to. I must be able to find a threat on the left that I can elevate into being as evil a thing as the thing on the right, because the last thing I would want to do is think of myself as an active, partisan liberal or progressive or Democrat.” But partisanship is part of democracy. It’s part of democracy in a way that the great moderates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wouldn’t have been able to imagine. The way in which we have the actual moderate institution of government that is constitutional democracy is in part because of the invention the Founders dreaded and feared and didn’t understand: committed, active political parties contending for power. Now, part of why we face our current crisis is because of the deinstitutionalization and weakening of political parties. They’re hollowing out. They’re becoming subject to takeover by hostile outsiders. And this is true, by the way, not only in the U.S. but also in Britain, where the selection-of-leadership mechanisms of the Labour Party have made it impossible for the governing Labour politicians to organize an effective opposition over years when Britain desperately needed one.
Jacob Levy: We need active, well-organized, well-institutionalized political parties. And in a moment of political crisis, which I think we are in, we need to able to say that one political party is causing the crisis and one political party is fighting it. And the aspiration to constantly imagine yourself as the tightrope walker seems to me to be at odds with that. In order to really stave off extremism — which is the rightful opposite of moderation, in some sense — we don’t stave off partisanship, because sometimes one party is more extreme than another. We sometimes sign on to partisanship. Now, we sign on to partisanship using the virtues of moderation. We sign on to partisanship believing in the institutions of constitutional democracy, playing by the rules, telling the truth, exercising intellectual humility and a pluralism of values and all the rest of the good things that Montesquieu taught us. But that makes us moderate liberals or moderate classical liberals or moderate libertarians or moderate conservatives — not moderates full stop. And in virtue of being moderates of one of those things or another, we’re able to look at our current circumstances and say, “Well, those of us who are committed to moderation as a means in our anti-autocracy, in our resistance to populism, in our resistance to racism — we have a partisan home right now and it’s a relatively clear one.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Andrew and Sam, you have been identified in the past as having been conservatives of one variety or another. But in more recent years you have been very critical of conservatism as it exists, at least as manifested by the Republican Party — and yet you’re still quite critical of what you see as excesses on the left. Does moderation strike you as an interesting, useful concept generally, or more specifically as it might be applied to yourselves?
Andrew Sullivan: I don’t think of myself as a moderate. I’m not a moderate personality, put it that way. I go back to what Aurelian was talking about, which is Oakeshott’s understanding of what conservatism is. That is a useful guide to looking at our current politics. Instead of thinking of right and left, Oakeshott thought of two strands in European and American thought that had origins as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was what he called the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism. They’re two very profound impulses in human society. One sees a vital task to be done (often on metaphysical grounds like in the seventeenth century or on ideological grounds in the twentieth century) and wants to collect society together towards that goal, to improve things, to make things better. The skeptic, on the other hand, is the person that says, “Hold on a minute, is there some risk to the arrangements that we currently have? Is perhaps what you’re doing taking things too far, too quickly?” And that is not what Oakeshott describes as moderation.
Andrew Sullivan: Moderation is the navigation between the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism, which requires one to believe that there is truth in both positions. There is sometimes a moment in which a grand idea — ideology — is necessary. There’s also a moment when it is utterly counterproductive. There is no pole star. We are in a ship on the ocean going nowhere. And the person in the boat, as Aurelian pointed out, has to judge the winds in either direction. They have to trim the sails (which is where the notion of a trimmer comes in) depending on where the winds are blowing. And so Oakeshott, in what one might call a meta-conservatism, really regarded the essence of politics as keeping the boat on an even keel. Sometimes that means that if everybody’s on one side of the boat and it’s tipping over, you need to go to the other side. What this doesn’t rule out is radicalism. It doesn’t rule out that circumstances emerge contingently in which the politics of faith is important and necessary. And there are moments when the politics of skepticism is much more justified.
Andrew Sullivan: What happened in this country with conservatism (and certainly the Republican Party) is it simply became purely a politics of faith. It could not adjust to reality. It wasn’t really interested in reality at that point. It had its own politics of faith. It had nothing within it that had the politics of skepticism. I think that’s why the Republican Party is not in any way, at this point, a conservative force at all. I think it’s a dangerously radicalizing, extremist force.
Andrew Sullivan: I’ll give you just one simple example of a problem that has emerged that we need to take account of: the fact that we are killing most life forms on this planet, that we’re destroying the very earth and seas and skies and ecosystem that we’re in. To be a moderate in that circumstance is to say that ruling out dramatic ways of dealing with this situation, or being skeptical of all ways of dealing with it, is dumb. When the emergency is this grave, the moderate wants to take the necessary measures to counter it. And that may require, depending again on the contingent circumstances, a radical agenda. Keeping the ship on an even keel without knowing where it’s going is a difficult politics to convey in a popular democracy. It doesn’t whip up frenzy, it doesn’t stir up passions. But I think the greatest statesmen and -women through the years have had an uncanny sense of where the imbalance is and have balanced it. And that’s the key to moderation. It can be both left and right. It can take radical positions and also rather moderate positions. But it is all about the sustenance of the existing structure — change has to go forward, the boat is not becalmed — and keeping it all in balance.
Geoff Kabaservice: Sam?
Sam Tanenhaus: Gee. I’ll just add a couple of things… Much better educated writers and thinkers than me have said that “moderate” is essentially a verb. I think that’s an idea that has come up here. You moderate something. Conservative and liberal and extremist — they’re not verbs. “Moderating” is. So to some extent, we’re all moderating what we do and what we think. It’s really almost a kind of style of operation. That leads me to my next point… For a number of years now, I’ve been looking closely at the life and career and works of William Buckley. And he was someone who I think actually suits each of these descriptions. He was ideologically radical, especially when he was young. I’m happy to talk about his history and career if anybody wants to know it. But he started out really as a kind of an inheritor of what in his time was called the Old Right — which was a right that was not terribly different from Donald Trump’s.
Sam Tanenhaus: Buckley was not a patrician aristocrat as many people think. His father was from deep South Texas and his mother was from New Orleans, and the family was raised as culturally Southern. Bill Buckley spent about a third of each year from the time he was fifteen years old in Camden, South Carolina, in a mansion his father bought that had been built for the great Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut. It was called Kamchatka, but the Buckley family called it Kamschatka — they added an “s.” They lived as Southern gentry, and that explains a lot of the politics of the early conservative movement. At the same moment that Bill Buckley started National Review, his family in Camden became the principal backers and founders of a weekly newspaper called the Camden News, which was one of the chain of newspapers that were started by the White Citizens’ Councils. And you will see interplay between the early National Reviewand that newspaper — the microfilm is available in the Camden Historical Society and worth a look, along with the papers of Bill’s younger brother, Reid Buckley, who was the most Southern of the Buckley family. And I mentioned all of that because that’s a lot of the origins of the modern Republican Party, which many people have commented on. Jacob, you’re right about the Democratic Party. There’s a bright young scholar — I think he teaches at Colgate — Sam Rosenfeld. I reviewed his book The Polarizers, and a lot of it looks at the Southern origins of the conservative movement.
Sam Tanenhaus: My point in mentioning all of this is that Bill Buckley underwent a profound change in his political views. And it happened in the space of seven to ten days. It was after he’d run for mayor of New York in 1965, lost badly, but kept alive the conservative arguments of Barry Goldwater. And let’s not forget what Barry Goldwater had to say about extremism and moderation. Some of you will remember that that speech was written for him by Harry Jaffa, who was the greatest Lincoln scholar of his time and the first great protégé of Leo Strauss. He wrote Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech about moderation and extremism, vice and virtue. Bill kept that argument alive and urbanized it. Goldwater’s appeal had been in the Sun Belt. That was the politics he came out of. He was a country-club Republican from Arizona, a brilliant politician — a much better politician than people realize. And it was not Bill Buckley who created Barry Goldwater, as many people think, it was the other way around. It was Goldwater’s campaign that made Bill Buckley a really famous public figure.
Sam Tanenhaus: In the early ‘60s, Buckley was the second most sought-after campus speaker in America. Number one was Goldwater, number three was Dr. Martin Luther King, and number two was Bill Buckley. We heard some talk earlier about the Port Huron Statement, which was the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society in the summer of 1962. That organization was modeled on the Young Americans for Freedom, which was formed on Bill Buckley’s family estate in Sharon, Connecticut in 1960. I know many people in this audience are aware of all this history; very little of it is new. But Buckley’s transformation came in 1969. The National Urban League put together a tour of journalists, mainstream journalists, and had them travel to eight great cities in the United States and live with families in what was then called the ghetto or the inner city. And Bill Buckley was transformed by that. If you look at the columns he wrote during that trip, you begin to see how Bill Buckley changed his mind on racial issues and also on democracy. A culminating moment came — and I’ll stop with that — in 1970 when he gave an interview to Lifemagazine and he said what America needs is an African-American president. And so I give that as an example of someone whose ideas were radical and yet moderated himself as he saw the need to do it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you. I was strongly tempted to call this conference “Moderation: A Debate about Grammar.” [laughter] Fortunately, I was talked out of it. But we’ve heard you describe moderation as a verb, Sam. Jacob is largely arguing that it’s an adjective. At the Niskanen Center, we’ve become fond of it as a noun, and we have discussed the idea of “radical moderation.” Now, this may appear to be an oxymoron, a complete contradiction in terms, because so much of the implicit definition of moderation is that it is incrementalism — in the good Burkean tradition, I suppose. It’s not completely staying in place, but it’s trying not to throw out the baby with the bath water; it’s trying to make reasoned, rational change. And yet, sometimes the need is so great that incrementalism seems not just a bad idea but the wrong idea; a counterproductive, maybe even evil idea.
Geoff Kabaservice: It seems to me that we may be at one such moment, in that, as you pointed out, Andrew, insect life is dying off this planet at 2.5 percent per year, and the cascading effects of this will be incalculable. We’re in a situation where half of this country, and indeed half of most countries, is being left behind to lives of despair ending in deaths of despair: alcoholism, suicide, addiction, the opioid epidemic… And there’s a growing and very dangerous class-based system in which the large metropolitan areas are where all of the meritocratically anointed elites go to live, and they congratulate themselves about how much they deserve this wonderful destiny and how much those left behind deserve their awful fates. It seems to me that now is not the time for half-measures. And yet is radical moderation a contradiction in terms? Can you actually do this? Can you do things that in any sense might be labeled moderation and still be radical enough to make the difference that’s needed?
Aurelian Craiutu: I think I have the answer to the question. I’d like to propose an example that came from communist Poland. I’d like to take you back to the 1970s in Poland… Adam Michnik formed a coalition called the Committee for the Defense of Workers, which then evolved into Solidarity. They came up with an interesting concept, which was “self-limiting revolution.” In a way, that’s the answer to the question. It was a bold agenda for promoting political reform. And guess what? Solidarity won the battle. It didn’t win it in 1976 when the KOR was formed, it didn’t win it in 1980 when Solidarity was formed. But it won decisively in 1989, when the Round Table Agreement put an end to communism. Communism fell in Poland first. We have to remember that. It was because the Polish came up with this radical concept of moderation under the formula of self-limiting revolution. They didn’t challenge the system directly, they went for incremental but bold reforms. So it’s possible.
Aurelian Craiutu: The other example that I’d like to call your attention to is “the power of the powerless” in the works of Vaclav Havel. This was a formidable ideological weapon in the hands of the opposition in the former Czechoslovakia. But there is another, larger point that I think is worth throwing into the conversation. It is about the concept of thinking politically as opposed to thinking ideologically. I know that Jerry Taylor wrote an illuminating piece on this topic, proposing moderation as an alternative to ideology, and Jacob gave a thoughtful reply to that. And this is an open conversation for all of us. What does it mean to think politically? It means something like Ortega y Gasset once said — and I always love quoting this line — “Aligning oneself with the left, as with the right, is only one of the numberless ways open to men of being an imbecile: both are forms of moral hemiplegia” — which is a form of paralysis, a stroke. And I think that there’s something to it, if you think about it. Raymond Aron in turn said, “Having political opinions is not a matter of having an ideology once and for all; it is a question of taking the right decisions in changing circumstances.” And I like to invoke another thinker here who will be part of the conversation after we leave the podium for Tony Blair, I think: John Maynard Keynes. Keynes should be seen as a radical moderate in the sense that he said, “What do you do when the facts change? You change your mind.”
Aurelian Craiutu: But I think this brings us back to what Andrew Sullivan pointed to earlier, which is how do you sail without a compass? You are there at sea and you need a compass. And moderation is a difficult and risky virtue because it involves political judgment. There is no algorithm for political judgment. If you’re a Democrat, you have the DNC rulebook. If you’re a Republican, you have the RNC rulebook. But if you are a moderate, you don’t have a textbook. Of course you can read any of my books, but that would not take you any further. So I think that the difficulty of moderation lies with the fact that it is a virtue that requires constant political judgment and you cannot rely on a textbook to do that. In that sense, I think it’s very radical. And as I pointed out, the two examples from the former Czechoslovakia and communist Poland show that moderation has intrinsic radical elements that I think we should not forget.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jacob, do you want to stand up for ideology?
Jacob Levy: I have no idea what radical moderation means. I really don’t know what it would be to say, “Well, because I have an agenda about, for example, addressing deaths of despair and the crisis of the rural and white working class (which aren’t the same), therefore what? With respect to any given problem, there are going to be competing diagnoses and competing proposed remedies. Donald Trump has proposed a diagnosis and a set of remedies. He thinks that the crisis of rural and white working-class America is caused by too many Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the southern border illegally, bringing with them vast quantities of drugs that then go on to addict all of the members of his base. So he proposes the remedies of addressing this crisis by building walls, locking people up, accentuating the drug war within the United States, locking up more African-Americans and Hispanics within the United States. That he says he has an agenda and that he says he has a remedy doesn’t mean that there’s overlap with other people who are concerned with the same problem.
Jacob Levy: Now, I read something like Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles’ The Captured Economy, which is an agenda for the progressive market opening of the American political economy. It pays attention to the ways in which the American political economy, while appearing market-oriented, has been systematically market-closing with respect to opportunities for those in the lowest classes. I can imagine building a diagnosis and remedy for this set of prices based on that framework of thought. Is that a moderate agenda? I don’t see why that would be a moderate agenda in a way that Trump’s isn’t. Trump has a populist, nationalist, racist, authoritarian set of diagnoses and solutions. Brink and Steven have a liberal and market-liberal, progressive and libertarian kind of response. I don’t see where the word moderate does any work in any part of that.
Andrew Sullivan: Let me respond. I think that Trumpism, as it were… I think you exaggerated some of his views. But Trumpism is itself a form of balancing against an emergent problem, which is that global capitalism is failing most people and our core political unit, the nation, has been called into question as to what it might mean — how it relates to our past and how the understanding of citizenship has changed for people. And the emergence of Trump is a kind of corrective to what were in fact extreme policies that were doing extreme damage. Trump is sui generis; I’m not going fight you about that. But there are ways in which what he represents are genuinely an attempt to rebalance the country and indeed the global order. And they come from that conservative instinct that things have gone too far in the other direction.
Andrew Sullivan: Let me give you another example of radical moderation: gay marriage. At the time, it was regarded as a completely crazy idea at the very beginning. It was hated by the left for fifteen years, then hated by the right for the next fifteen years. And it was not what would be regarded as moderate at the time. But it was, actually. If you think of the emergence of gay people in our society — powerful new forces of energy and openness and a psychological revolution, and also this extraordinary experience of mass death and the sense of vulnerability —there was a sense that we needed to balance out that emergence with some stabilizing institutions. That’s where it came from. Again, it was essentially a moderate position, but actually at the time quite a radical one.
Andrew Sullivan: So I think the key is balancing. And you’re right, Aurelian, the key is also balancing without ideology, and that is a very hard thing to do. One thing we’ve lost also in our political theater and to some extent in our common life is this notion of what you call judgment, which the ancients would have called prudence. Prudence is the sense somehow of where things are and how we need to balance them, which is not a set of ideas — it’s a temperament. And sometimes people have it for a period of time in their life, and if we’re lucky they get power and help us sort things through. So yes, I think those are examples in which it can be quite exciting to be moderate.
Andrew Sullivan: I think, to be honest, that a radical attempt to rebalance our social inequality right now, which would be regarded as ideologically left, is actually at this point a form of moderation. Because the extremes within our culture have gotten so great, and have put in peril the very basis of our constitutional system, that we do have to do something quite dramatic. Equally, I think that the ecological crisis, which is by far the biggest crisis any of us are facing, requires drastic and quick action. I think that’s the moderate position, because you don’t have an ideology; you’re open to and you notice emerging conditions, and you take what you think are appropriate actions to balance it out so that the world is not changed completely beyond recognition. I think it’s perfectly possible to have that.
Jacob Levy: I think the disagreement between you and Aurelian about the ship metaphor is actually really important here. Aurelian talked about pole stars and compasses, the idea that there is a right direction and we have to balance in order to carry on in that direction. And you rightly said there is no pole star; we are at sea together with people with whom we disagree, including disagreeing about what direction we should go in. So the work that you did on same-sex marriage, the work that you did to activate people’s moral imagination about that, was a way of making a case about a direction to go in. Now the proposal was, in all the ways that you’re talking about, a balanced proposal between conservative and liberal values and virtues, between the virtues and values of the family and the virtues and values of individualism and equality. But that wasn’t somehow just given by the task of balancing the ship.
Andrew Sullivan: Yes it was.
Jacob Levy: Other people could have held the ship still by holding everything still and by making no change.
Andrew Sullivan: Yes, and the revelation of what no institutions and no integration to society that homosexuality had from the late ‘60s onwards required balancing. It occurred spontaneously. It hadn’t happened before in human history. It required some kind of integration into the community so that the thing could be balanced. But I do want to agree with you that I take Oakeshott’s view, which is that there is no pole star, there’s no place we are going. We are simply where we are — which is why it’s a very sort of almost postmodern conservatism. It’s certainly completely alien to Strauss, completely alien to the notion of natural right. And that’s why, having been brought up in English conservatism, I find American conservatism so strange and at many times un-conservative. But oddly I think sometimes that just as Reagan represented a resistance to an overreach of the government and the state, so Trump represents a reaction to globalized misery.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jacob, I want to take slight issue with something you said earlier, about how we equate the era of moderation in this town of years past with essentially overlooking that that was an era of repression. That is always true to some extent in American history; racism is our ancestral sin. But I remember being very influenced by a book by Ira Shapiro that came out a few years ago called The Last Great Senate. The last great Senate, in his view, ran from 1962 through 1980 — so it’s kind of sad that we’re going on our fourth decade without a great Senate. Make the Senate great again! But Shapiro pointed out that the Senate could not be great until Lyndon Johnson was gone from the Senate as its leader, because Johnson was more than anyone else responsible for repressing actual advancement on civil rights in the name of party unity and process. And when he went on to become vice president and then president, suddenly this could happen.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things Shapiro points out is that the great Senate was great because moderation characterized it, because there was bipartisanship, but especially because its members were able to put the interests of the country above their own party and their own ideological clique. And one of the senators that he pointed out as having been part of this great senate was James Buckley, who of course was the brother of Bill. Sam, given what you know about Bill and James, can you talk about this kind of — I don’t know whether to call it moderate conservatism, but institutional conservatism, system-preserving conservatism of this kind? Is this what eventually Bill came around to, as you talk about him moderating?
Sam Tanenhaus: I think he did. I’m glad you mentioned James Buckley, Geoff. I’m going to be interviewing him tomorrow afternoon. He’s 96 years old. He was Bill Buckley’s older brother and I’m told that his memory is still intact, he is still totally lucid. I’ve been looking at Jim Buckley’s Senate career… Sorry to make this all Buckley all the time, but we can blame David Brooks for that — he started it. [laughter] Jim Buckley ran for the Senate four times; I think not everyone realizes that. He ran twice in New York and twice in Connecticut, and he was elected just once. He was defeated first, badly, by Jacob Javits in New York. Bill Buckley was actually the figure the Conservative Party wanted to run against Javits; he didn’t want to do it and chose his brother instead. Jim Buckley was a much better politician than Bill Buckley; he was a much better candidate. He wasn’t as eccentric as Bill. All the things that were fascinating about Bill Buckley did not necessarily make him a wholesale commodity on the political market. He was funny, he was exciting, he was brilliant and kind of mercurial — but Jim Buckley was more sort of an ordinary guy.
Sam Tanenhaus: Jim Buckley was elected just once, in 1970. And some of you will remember the circumstances. It’s when there was a fissure within the Republican Party, especially in New York State where there were so many moderates. The fissure had grown over the Vietnam War. The sitting senator, Charles Goodell — the father of the NFL commissioner — had become a liberal Republican, back in the days when there really were quite a few of them. So that drove a wedge within the Republican Party. And Nixon in 1970 was looking to pick up some seats. He and Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchanan became to some extent the masterminds of Jim Buckley’s victory in 1970. Buckley he ran as what he called a Nixon conservative, which was a law-and-order, pro-Vietnam conservative. And he actually won. It was a close enough race that no one got close to a majority, but he won pretty handily. The Democrat was a guy named Dick Ottinger, who was a House Democrat and a plastic, Westchester liberal. And Jim Buckley won with clear help from the White House
Sam Tanenhaus: And then Watergate blew up, which fissured the Republican Party even more. I’m going to be asking Jim about this when I see him tomorrow to get his take on it. But my understanding is that it was Bill Buckley who began huddling with Jim and told him that someone on the certifiable right — not a moderate Republican, someone who was thought of as a hardcore conservative Republican — had to call for Nixon to resign. Otherwise, the party would lose credibility. And at that moment, Bill Buckley said, preserving the Republican Party as a viable institution was more important than ideologically defending Nixon.
Sam Tanenhaus: If you follow some of the trajectory of the conservative movement, you may remember that the right took on a new kind of an activist force in the 1970s under what was called the New Right. It was formulated by its great thinker Kevin Phillips, who had written the famous Emerging Republican Majority, which provided the map for the Republicans to win the next set of elections. And several alumni of Young Americans for Freedom, Buckley’s organization, were involved in it. They became the New Right. Richard Viguerie was the main direct-mail fundraiser. There’s an obscure book that National Review’s publisher Bill Rusher (who was also a New Right figure) commissioned and published after Reagan won, which was about the New Right. And if you read Viguerie’s chapter, he says that the New Right was born in the moment after Nixon had resigned and been replaced by Gerald Ford, when Ford nominated his vice president. And many in the room will know who that was: It was Nelson Rockefeller, who was everything the ideological right hated. But Bill Buckley wrote a column saying, “Rockefeller’s the guy we need.” Why? Because of his distinguished name. Bill Buckley had been attacking Rockefeller politically his entire career, but now he said, “This is the guy we need. He’s a stabilizing figure. He comes from a great family. Everybody knows he won’t be on the take the way a lot of the Nixon guys were — Spiro Agnew among them — collecting bribes. This is the man we need. Rockefeller commands the respect of the country at large.” And that is when Bill Buckley was more or less read out of his own movement.
Geoff Kabaservice: What this calls to mind, Sam, is that when we talk about moderation, some people feel it’s just the middle of the road, the lowest common denominator approach. But I have come to feel that moderation is a kind of eclecticism. Our views aren’t always going to neatly align with one ideology or another. That’s why I don’t feel that we at Niskanen are just libertarians in the end; there are some things we like about the right and some things we actually like about the left. And I suppose the question then comes down to: What is to be done? Is it possible to envisage a kind of radical moderation that in sees itself as rooted in conservative traditions of nationhood — of one people together — and yet is willing to contemplate some far-reaching government-sponsored interventions in the economy? I’m thinking of interventions along the lines of those described by Paul Collier, for example, in The Future of Capitalism, in order to rebalance the economy.
Andrew Sullivan: I just wanted to add something I think that uniquely mitigates against moderation right now, and that is what I and many other people have written about tribalism. In other words, if you are seeking to balance something, you have to believe you’re all in the same boat. And increasingly — because of the extraordinary demographic transformation of the society, and because of the ramifications of Buckley and Reagan and the sorting of both parties — you have a situation in which one of the major parties does not think the other party is legitimate. The Republican Party thinks the opposing party is literally illegitimate; it has no right to be in government at all. And because of that, Republicans will defend almost anyone on their own side. And that then gets mapped on to race and gender and region, especially when you have the city/country divide. So in fact, the problem of moderation right now is that it depends upon all of us thinking we’re part of the same nation. And yet you find this extraordinary ability of the Republican Party to support the Kremlin, of all institutions; they would actually rather have a foreign government intervening in their affairs than a Democrat. So at this point, the problem with moderation is that we don’t have a country anymore. And I think part of that can only be resolved by a serious attempt to restrain immigration and to focus on integration in the future. I think the way the things are currently polarized, tribalization makes moderation incredibly difficult.
Geoff Kabaservice: I wouldn’t say that the Democratic Party has gone anywhere near as far as the Republican Party has in terms of proclaiming the illegitimacy of the opposition. But among many of my Democratic friends, the feeling is that there can be no progress until the Republican Party is so utterly defeated that the Democratic Party has control of every lever of government, and only then can good things be passed. But historically, this is not the way the country has operated at all. All of the enduring reforms and all of the progress that has been made have had some kind of bipartisan basis — or anyway they did up until Obamacare. Are we simply in a new model where moderation no longer applies, the need for bipartisanship no longer applies? Or are we going to have to recreate it somehow?
Aurelian Craiutu: If what Andrew Sullivan says is right, then we’re in deep trouble. I hope you’re wrong; I can’t say for sure. But one thing I will say is that deeply ingrained in the ethos of moderation is the refusal to simplify reality. We live in a complex world. We live in a world that is messy. We don’t have black-and-white contrasts anymore, we live in a world of nuances of gray. How many shades of gray? Fifty, maybe. [laughter] Maybe less. But gray is not beautiful. And I think we need to learn how to fall in love with the virtues of gray, even though we all like the contrasts — as I said, the foxes and the lions — and we like the big headlines. But I think that the refusal to simplify the political world is a fundamental impetus behind moderation. So we don’t have left and right, market versus state. We need to look beyond those dichotomies. They have exhausted themselves. And I think that that’s fundamental.
Aurelian Craiutu: And then I think one way to combat this problem that Andrew Sullivan pointed out is the refusal to think in Manichaean terms. I live in a blue bubble surrounded by red districts in the middle of the country, and I am all aware of that. I think we need to resist the temptation to label those who disagree with us politically as stupid people, as deplorables and so forth. This is difficult because I see it in myself and others; we like to socialize with those we think are intelligent and who resemble us. But that’s a big mistake that we’re making. And I think that it is incumbent upon each of us to get out of our echo chambers and bubbles and try to talk with those who disagree with us. I have a friend across the street who votes differently from me. We drink bourbon together, and we talk about the other things than politics. The refusal to politicize everything, I think, is a way out of our problem. And David Brooks spoke eloquently about that this morning. Politics is not everything. We need to drink bourbon together, we need to look at movies and listen to music together — even country music. [laughter]
Jacob Levy: At the risk of trying to teach Michael Oakeshott to Andrew Sullivan… Oakeshott taught us that we need to understand the political institutions and the impersonal political border of the state in a very different way from how we understand the purposive, substantive memberships that make up our various lives under the labels of civic association and enterprise association.
Andrew Sullivan: Civil association.
Jacob Levy: Civil association. I told you I shouldn’t have tried this. [laughter] The civil association is not the object of love, it is not the object of a deep sense of identity membership, it is not where we show what we share with other human beings at the most fundamental levels. It’s where we operate under neutral rules that can allow a variety and plurality of things to happen. Enterprise associations include political parties with substantive visions of what needs to be done and include, in a slight stretch of the metaphor, the kind of identity groups, religious groups, substantive memberships in which we live our lives. We don’t solve the problem of the current moment by trying to reinfuse the state with the qualities of being an object of love, an object of identity membership, with trying to pretend that we share everything at the level of the polity. We do so by sharply distinguishing that which happens at the level of politics, which includes administering fair procedures for contestation, fair procedures that govern a variety of kinds of pluralism with substantive commitments to those pluralist entities. So, we respond with better partisanship of the kind that was shown in the moment of the Nixon resignation. By the way, this isn’t a story in which moderate senators called on Nixon to resign successfully; it’s not a story in which William F. Buckley as a moderate called on him to resign. It’s a story of people who took seriously the institutional interests of the Republican Party, who were not willing to sacrifice the party to the interest of one man — which is precisely what is lacking in the Republican Party in 2019. And, it is compatible with a proliferation of ways in which people express and politically defend their substantive memberships and identities in politics.
Jacob Levy: But there’s a great deal of disdain today for the idea of identity politics, and it’s a disdain that I don’t share. Tribalism seems to me to be a poorly mistaken way of thinking about the crisis of the current moment, except insofar as tribalism is what we name it when we try to infuse the state with nationalistic identities or try to remake the state as if it is the manifestation of our underlying identities. Moderation isn’t quite to be found at either of those levels. The impersonal institutions need to be fair; they need to be vigorously, actively fair. Fighting to make them fair, fighting for democratization and democratic reform, fighting for the rule of law, fighting for separation of powers — that requires vigorous activity on the one hand. And then we need a society full of vigorous partisans, vigorous churchgoers, vigorous believers in their own various families — not to pretend that the state is a party or a church or a race or a family.
Geoff Kabaservice: On that note, let’s go to questions. We don’t get enough time to bring the audience into this, so let’s try and do this. Luke, let’s start with you.
Luke Phillips: So, mainly in response to Mr. Tanenhaus’ remarks on Buckley and Nixon, but just more broadly… Where is the dividing line between moderation as loyalty to keeping an institution alive versus moderation as loyalty to the ideals or the principles that explain why that institution is alive? And is there a conflict between just the survival of the institution and the accomplishment of the ideas and things that that institution is supposed to protect?
Sam Tanenhaus: Well, as far as this particular incident went — and that’s where I think I can be most useful in telling you about what had happened in that period… Buckley was concerned (and he wasn’t alone) with what had emerged as the real criminality of the Nixon administration. And the National Reviewfigure at that time who was the most aggressive in describing it was George Will. The great columnist, who actually began a lot of his career as a writer at National Review, was the first to be absolutely critical and adamant that laws that had been broken. He saw very early on that after the Watergate burglars had been caught, the trail would go much higher. And at that point, National Review, Bill Buckley’s magazine, had invested a lot of its faith in the vice president, Spiro Agnew. Because Agnew, some will remember, had made the very famous speeches, written for him first by Pat Buchanan and then by William Safire, denouncing the enemy — which was the media. If you look at Bill Safire’s very interesting memoir Before The Fall, which is about the Nixon years before Watergate, you will see a chapter that is titled “The Press Is the Enemy.” “The enemy of the people” — that goes back to that era.
Sam Tanenhaus: And I think Bill Buckley was put in an awkward situation because some of his best friends were among the most celebrated and powerful liberal journalists in America. He got together regularly for lunch and drinks with the editors of the New York Times, Newsweek, Time magazine… These were his sailing buddies, often his drinking pals, and he felt himself to be very much a part of the media. At the same time, his own party was leading an attack against it. So I think it created this question of competing institutions: is it the Republican Party or is it this larger idea of a free and investigative press? I don’t think Bill ever sorted through all those questions to reach answers. He didn’t really need them. And just to add to the metaphor of compasses and lodestars, remember that Bill Buckley wrote the most famous description of an explanation of celestial navigation. He actually wrote it three different times in three different sailing books because he was so good at it. And then in the end he used GPS! He was one of the first people to put GPS on his boat. [laughter]
Sam Tanenhaus: So Bill just wanted to get wherever he was going and left much of the thinking to other people. He was surprisingly instinctive and instinctual. And if you watch a great Firing Lineepisode — you can see a lot of them on YouTube — you’ll see how he does it. And I want to point to someone in the audience, my fellow Grinnell alumnus John Price, who worked with Pat Moynihan in creating what was really going to be the forerunner of the Universal Basic Income we have now. And John has written about this. It was Nixon’s and Moynihan’s famous Family Assistance Plan, which when Nixon first presented it in the summer of 1969 was overwhelmingly supported by the public. And that’s why I was one of those who, at a certain point, thought Trump might not be the worst alternative. I think I even wrote about this in the New York Times before the convention in 2016. He could have been an heir to an Eisenhower or a Nixon because he’s not ideological. He could’ve made the speech that said, “I have a great idea: Let’s give everybody health care!” And his base would have supported him. For a moment it looked like that might possibly happen.
Sam Tanenhaus: So, for that reason, I think a lot of the big ideas and theories that we think about connected to politics are often kind of beside the point. And it is more instinctive: How do we keep the party from going down? How do we make sure a guy who has violated the law is pushed out of office and we have a decent guy to replace him? It’s a kind of constant pragmatism — a word we haven’t used much up here. And that’s how I think more of Buckley and his form of conservatism. It was highly ideological in the abstract — if you read the early National Review, it’s all about ideological controversy — but once the Republicans and the movement got closer to power, it all became about pragmatism.
Sam Tanenhaus: I’ll say one final thing about that, so I don’t go on too terribly long. The two people in Nixon’s administration that Bill Buckley felt the closest affinity to were basically its two most liberal members: Henry Kissinger and Pat Moynihan. Why? Because they spoke the way he did, they were educated, they were funny, they were good writers. He felt temperamentally connected to them and that mattered more to him than the ideology did.
Geoff Kabaservice: Buckley famously defined conservatism as the politics of reality. One wonders how much that phrase is going to come up at CPAC this week. I’m going to take another question. Right at the back, standing up.
Unidentified speaker: Thank you. Thank you for taking my question and thank you to the Center for the conference. I’ve been waiting all day, listening to these conversations — about why there’s polarization, why did the Republican Party collapse, what are we going to do about it — and I’ve yet to hear anyone raise the topic of disinformation and its role, particularly as a strategy leveled by foreign adversaries against our society through the social web since its emergence fifteen years ago. And I’m curious if you have taken this into consideration as you think about how to move forward with this topic. And if so, to what extent? I do have a background in this, so it’s not a question out of the blue. If you’d like any clarification, I’d be happy to provide that. Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Who would like to take that one?
Andrew Sullivan: Yes, it’s another of these awful factors that is making moderation extremely hard. Because if one thinks of … I mean, I think of the beginning of the web, when I look back on the golden days of blogging, as a diverse bunch of people actually legitimately linking to one another, exchanging arguments. And at my own blog, the Dish, we were absolutely committed to airing dissent every day and forcing me to defend myself in many respects, which was a grueling but nonetheless fruitful endeavor. And yet, as it went along and as the (as it were) adrenaline rush you get from being the first person to say something about some passing event or to think through or to predict or capture a moment emotionally… As the medium itself became this 24/7 machine, I felt it speed up over the fifteen years I did it — until it separated out into Twitter, where the incentive structure is entirely against moderation. You think that’s not true?
Unidentified speaker: That’s not the question. The question is the role of foreign adversaries and their strategic disinformation.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think this is not completely dissimilar from some of the things we’ve been saying today. The Russians did do their best to do their worst in terms of sowing disinformation. But there’s a reason that took root, which is that there already were existing divisions in society which they were able to exploit, much as Trump was able to exploit these divisions. The somewhat conspiratorial view I’ve heard, but from people who I trust, is that what you saw in the critical states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was not an uptake in people voting for Trump as a result of Russian disinformation, but an uptake in people voting for third parties or “none of the above.” Because the message had been spread: “It’s all rotten, let them all go to hell.” And you actually saw a surge in those states in votes for non-parties, third parties, and that was what ended up making the difference. But again, I come back to the fact that if we were not already a divided society, I don’t think that kind of disinformation would have had the same kind of impact.
Jacob Levy: It seems to have been effective in some of the European contests in which Russia had also been intervening, potentially including Brexit. So we don’t want to over-rely on distinctively American explanations of the vulnerability of liberal democracies to certain kinds of attack. I think that there’s a pervasive problem right now, and it’s a hard problem that people with real expertise need to be working on. I have nothing like a solution for it.
Unidentified speaker: And these people with expertise think that this predates the few years before Trump campaign, and that actually Russians have been hacking within social media since its emergence fifteen years ago. And we didn’t really catch on to it until it manifested in the election.
Geoff Kabaservice: That is possible. Let’s take one more question. Right here.
Unidentified speaker: I was going to say something else, but just as a follow-up on the disinformation… For those who have read Dark Moneyor are familiar with that, there has been a decade-long attempt to manipulate information. And from my understanding, this institution split off from another think tank somewhat due to the pernicious influence of certain big funders; I don’t know if Wikipedia can be believed or not. But to me, what moderation needs is an equal type of strategy that is deep and multifaceted to undo the harm of disinformation and attempts to influence and manipulate people, to dumb down voters with political theater and such. One of the big issues I think is: Can we rely on the American voter to rise to the occasion and be more thoughtful about things? So on the issue of… The question? Okay, so I’ll just pick one of the things I wanted to say. On the issue of a rapid change versus gradual incrementalism, it came into my head one day: 90 percent evolution and 10 percent revolution. And is this moderate or not was the question that was posed. And my thinking is that you can have revolution in a way that is thoughtful, that is not sloganeering like Medicare for All or “Build the Wall,” which are both ways that simplify the dialogue. You can take on a big issue in a revolutionary way with a moderate temperament. Any thoughts on that?
Aurelian Craiutu: I commented earlier on the Polish example of self-limiting revolution. It was successful. It was a small step but it was bold, it was resolute, and it led to practical results in ‘89. So that’s possible. “The power of the powerless” is another example.
Geoff Kabaservice: There is some tendency on the part of those of us who think of ourselves as moderate to enlist into our ranks whoever strikes us as worth admiring. There was a pretty good book by Gil Troy a few years ago called Leading From The Center, in which he decided that both Reagan and FDR were moderates, essentially. That doesn’t seem to necessarily be how most people would think of them. And yet there was a pragmatic streak to both of them.
Jacob Levy: I’ll respond to that tendency to enlist, because I think that importantly today got off on that foot with David Brooks’ remarks calling Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela moderates, in a way that was opposed to them being fighters. And I think that’s clearly just wrong.
Geoff Kabaservice: The moderate or the fighter part?
Jacob Levy: That Mandela did not lead a campaign of bloody vengeance — that is a deeply admirable thing. It does not mean that we redefine his career as having been other than really deep, dedicated, passionate, partisan fighting.
Geoff Kabaservice: But incompatible with moderation?
Jacob Levy:And having an ideology, being willing to name your own ideology.
Geoff Kabaservice: Because clearly Martin Luther King was the moderate alternative to Malcolm X.
Jacob Levy: But Martin Luther King was also a committed socialist, who was really demonized as an extremist in his day. Naming one’s own ideology, naming one’s own principles — this is where I want to get — is a way of resisting the temptation to just say, “Everyone I like must turn out to be one of me.” There are people I really like and admire who have different views and different ideologies and disagree with me. And I think that we ought to resist the urge, which is a characteristic urge of calling oneself something like a moderate, to assimilate everyone you like and admire to agreeing with you. Let’s acknowledge there are people we like and admire who fight for causes that aren’t our own.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree with that part. It actually is a Lincolnian kind of note on which to end, is it not? “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Thank you so much, everyone, for coming to this panel. [applause]