October 11, 2017

Moderation as an Antidote to Hyper-Partisan Politics

I recently took a quiz on the PBS Newshour website meant to test the thickness of the bubble in which I live. The test, conceived by the controversial libertarian thinker Charles Murray, consists of 25 simple questions covering a wide array of topics, from domestic beer and smoking cigarettes to vacationing in Branson, Missouri and identifying military insignia. The lower the score, the thicker the bubble is (the highest score is 100, the lowest 0, the average around 42). Although I like to consider myself open-minded, my score was alarmingly low: 12. That means that my bubble is very thick and I live in an echo chamber.

This should not have come as a surprise, since my life revolves entirely around a liberal college town in south-central Indiana surrounded by conservative counties which I rarely get to visit. Most of my friends are also academics who share my interests and whom I see in lecture halls or at chamber music concerts. We like to talk to each other, but we also find it difficult to socialize with those with whom we tend to disagree politically. We are far from being alone in this regard. As a nation, we have slowly been segregating ourselves into thick bubbles and hyper-partisan tribes that see political reality through quite different lenses. Many of us have become vigilant purists whose thinking is dogmatic—“my way or the highway”—and who regard their political opponents as enemies with whom there can be no possible compromise.

Many of us have ceased to believe in the power of moderation.

Beyond the Bubble

I was reminded of all this while reading John Avlon’s timely book, Washington’s Farewell. Our first president was a man of moderation, fiercely determined to maintain his independence and integrity. “I was no party man myself,” he once said, “and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.” [1] While he tried to be non-partisan, Washington avoided being neutral and did not live in a bubble. He worried about the existence of major disagreements between prominent politicians within his administration, and he believed in the importance of “liberal allowances, mutual forbearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides.” [2] His pole star was political moderation.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the concept of political moderation is inseparable from balance. It presupposes a coherent political vision that requires a good dose of courage and a willingness to swim against the current. Washington’s example nicely illustrates this point. His was a bold form of moderation that united prudence and self-restraint with a conciliatory temper and firmness of character. In his eyes, moderation properly practiced was not a source of weakness; it was a source of strength that allowed him to resist the demagogues and factions of his time while defending the interests of the country as a whole.

During and after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington was a trimmer: he sought to balance different factions in order to prevent the ship of the state from capsizing in rough seas. On this, he agreed with Madison, who believed that factions are indispensable in free societies, but insisted that they must act in an institutional and constitutional framework imbued with the spirit of moderation.

What both Washington and Madison understood was that appearances notwithstanding, a muscular form of moderation is one of the virtues that can help us deal with the challenges of disagreement and partisanship. An inflexible and immoderate stance chooses single-mindedness over compromise and dismisses disagreement and conflict as signs of error or sin. Opposed to it stands the principle of trimming (as a face of moderation) and a fundamental epistemological and political humility, well illustrated by Washington.

Political trimming is a challenging concept rarely used today. It designates an effort to keep the ship of state on an even keel; the act of adjusting one’s opinions or actions in order to moderate the zeal of opposing factions; the attempt to keep to a middle-of-the-road policy by making necessary and timely concessions in order to prevent anarchy, violence, or civil war.

Reasons for Trimming

The need for political trimming has several sources.

One of them is the complex nature of the plural political landscape in open societies. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty (chapter 2), “truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.” The latter has to be achieved incrementally by the complex process of a rough and continuous struggle between different combatants fighting (sometimes) under hostile banners. Two other factors that justify trimming are the painful but salutary recognition of our fundamental fallibility and incompleteness—and the fact that we tend to live in separate bubbles with no communication among them.

Trimmers are aware that disagreement, pluralism, and contestation are nice in theory, but difficult to deal with in practice. We like to use our right to free speech to speak only or mostly to those who agree with us, and we tend to dismiss those who disagree with us as stupid, “deplorable,” or simply evil.

Trimmers have no illusions about the challenges facing them. The most daunting ones come from the existence of groups fixated on a single issue (abortion, gun rights, immigration, identity politics, etc.), with which it is difficult to compromise because their arguments are couched in “either-or” incompatible terms rather than “more-or-less” negotiable terms. Trimmers may not like these groups, but they are aware that they cannot dismiss them as irrational. And they admit that it is only through diversity of opinions that they have a fair chance to hear all the sides of an argument before they can make an informed decision.

Trimmers believe that they need strong and intelligent opponents as much as loyal and intelligent friends. “If opponents . . . do not exist,” Mill wrote, “it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.” Trimmers believe that there will always be hope when people are willing to listen to both sides and do not try to oversimplify the political world. The danger arises from those situations in which people listen only to those who tend to confirm their prejudices and biases.

The Manichaean Temptation

We would be well advised to pay heed to the example of trimmers such as Washington, who attempt to find common ground between competing parties, and philosophers such as Mill, who make a point of learning from people who disagree with them. But it is quite difficult to rise above party politics and avoid groupthink. In fact, it is much easier to be an extremist or a radical, who sees the world neatly divided between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This immoderate style of politics is again fashionable today in America. The fringes have been much more vocal than the center in our world of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and moderates on all sides have been increasingly sidelined, the victims of gerrymandering, big donors, and ruthless primaries. No wonder that moderates have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection.  

What Tacitus once called “the most difficult lesson of wisdom” is not a bland virtue located in a weak and opportunistic center. Moderation is compatible with resilience and courage and may be a powerful instrument to promote balance, stability, and fairness, without which our political institutions cannot function properly. As excellent books by Geoffrey Kabaservice (Rule and Ruin) and David Brown (Moderates) remind us, moderate politicians and groups have a long history, beginning with Washington and Adams’s Federalists (situated between the poles of Jefferson and Hamilton) and ending with the coalition of moderate forces active within the GOP from 1936 to the early 1970s. Kabaservice and Brown show that moderates have the courage to swim against the current, and that they perform a vital role by demanding that dissenting voices be heard when everyone around them would rather try to silence them. Moderates are not self-righteous, because they are aware of their own imperfection and fallibility. They pay special attention to what their opponents have to say, because they believe that the latter can sharpen their arguments and point out possible flaws in their ideas.

Epistemic Humility

As such, moderation is a form of epistemic humility that well suits human nature. Moderates keep their minds open to criticism because they do not believe that there is one single best way to solve all problems. They agree with Mill that “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinions, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” Moderates believe in free speech and contestation because they are aware that silencing the expression of any belief, however strange the belief may appear, is an arrogant and imprudent assertion of our infallibility.

In other words, moderation can serve as a strong antidote to hyper-partisan politics and the tendency to live in bubbles, which render us unable to deal with disagreement and make us wish for safe spaces. Moderates refuse to live in bubbles and are prepared instead to view disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen their views. They strive to increase their tolerance for discordant ideas so that they can become better able to defend their own beliefs. To this effect, they refuse to argue sophistically, to suppress the facts that might contradict their assumptions and ideas, or to misrepresent or stigmatize discordant opinions. Instead, moderates strive to keep the lines of dialogue open and to practice the art of civility even with their opponents. Above all, they lack ready-made answers and admit, in the words of Edmund Burke, that “liberties and rights vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modification, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule.” [3]

Dialogue, disagreement, and civility are essential elements of the moderates’ creed, as are reliance on real facts and the need to maintain balance and fairness in society. Being a moderate is a difficult task for those who live in echo chambers and comfortable bubbles. Yet we shall not be able to maintain our free way of life if we are not prepared to leave behind those bubbles and echo chambers every now and then and listen to those who defend principles with which we disagree. A democratic society depends on the existence of a vibrant engagement with opponents who see the world differently than we do.

Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent books are Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in the Age of Extremes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012).

[1] As quoted in John Avlon, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 52.

[2] Ibid., p. 73.

[3] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (Penguin, 1969), p. 151.