Against “Moderatism”

In History and Politics, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics on August 19, 2009 at 3:56 pm

This Is Not How Politics Works

This Is Not How Politics Works


Recent signals that the White House is preparing to “go it alone” on health care reform are encouraging, not just because they suggest that progress towards actually passing the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act (the House Bill; incidentally, we really need pithier titles for progressive legislation). It’s also a sign that the High Broderite approach of getting Max Baucus and his fellow “Moderate Democrats” to bravely reach across the aisle and compromise with a Republican minority that clearly has no interest in seeing a Democratic health care bill pass has completely failed. For people who’ve been counting, this now puts the moderate bipartisan approach at zero for four (stimulus, budget, climate change, health care).

My hope is that this will, both within the White House, the Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate, the broader party, and especially in the media, finally kill off the pernicious elevation of moderatism for the sake of moderatism into the highest political virtue, and bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship as the highest political strategy.


Anyone who’s ever read a David Broder column knows how the narrative goes – once upon a time, America’s two political parties were more moderate than they are today; congressfolk socialized across the aisle and developed relationships of trust that allowed compromises to be forged; politics stopped at the water’s edge and consensus reigned. And then some time in the recent past – sometime either after Watergate or when the Clintons showed up, take your pick – everything collapsed into a nightmarish hellscape of partisan extremism, culture wars, and paralyzed government. (Side note: why anyone who thought that the impeachment of Nixon was an abuse of power is treated as a sage of moderation or even allowed to walk on public streets is beyond me)

There’s just one problem with this story – it’s historically wrong, not true, false; it never happened. Politics is, was, and always will be a fiercely partisan affair, and that certainly didn’t change between 1945-1974. On foreign policy alone, the idea that “politics stopped at the water’s edge” is ludicrous – Republicans red-baited Democrats on China and Korea with outright assertions that the Democratic Party, from Truman’s cabinet on down to Congresswoman Helen Douglas, were either communist sympathizers or outright agents of the Kremlin and nearly impeached Truman for refusing to let MacArthur nuke China, Democrats argued that Republican opposition to the Marshall Plan and NATO would let the Red Army roll their tanks on to the Champs Elysees, and demagogued Eisenhower for “losing” Cuba; in the wake of Vietnam, Republicans deliberately tried to affix a “stab in the back” label to the Democratic Party for their support of the peace movement. On economic policy, Republicans routinely attacked Democratic policies like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society as socialist, and Democrats cheerfully returned the favor by labeling the GOP as the party of Hoover.

In short, there never was an era of golden bipartisanship. Those few areas where bipartisanship did hold sway had huge negative consequences – bipartisanship allowed the CIA to launch coups and finance extremists and the FBI to violate civil liberties; bipartisanship prevented open debate on the wisdom of U.S engagement in Vietnam. Bipartisanship gave cover for massive corruption on military contracts, highway contracts, and urban renewal contracts.

Problems With Moderatism:

However, even beyond the bad history, there’s also a deeper problem with moderatism that’s actually very common in American political thought – the association of ideology with extremism and moderates with pragmatism.  This goes all the way back to Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s the “Vital Center” (published in 1949) when he described Cold War liberals as practical, non-ideological moderates who stood between the extremes of Stalnism and fascism.

Yet moderatism is just as ideological as any other political position – it has a hierarchy of values, it has myths that structure perceptions of the world, it has its heroes and its villains, it has beliefs about how the world should be organized and the best methods to accomplish this that have nothing to do with practical consideration. Where moderatism becomes dangerous is that none of these ideological traits are either conscious or open – which means that you can’t really debate them, and “moderatists” can’t really acknowledge that they have a position. Historically speaking, this can be quite dangerous – when you don’t recognize that you have an ideological position and you elevate your position to that of practical common sense, everything else starts to look like dangerous, irrational extremism, and curbing dissent becomes equated with preserving good government.  Moreover, when ideology isn’t open, it’s a great invitation for corporate interests to use the veneer of moderation to give them cover; after all, if you’re just a pragmatist, you can’t be accused of selling out ideals you don’t have.

Moreover, moderatism also makes an ideological assumption about policy – that the best policies come from a compromise between opposing viewpoints – that I feel is deeply wrong. First, on many issues, the two sides are so diametrically opposed that compromise is nonsensical (the obvious example being one side wanting to kill everyone who’s left-handed, another side being opposed to any killings – killing half the left-handed people is not a substantive improvement). Second, on other issues, one side is clearly right, and trying to split the difference only gives shelter to injustice.

And history backs this up: on the issue of slavery, trying to split the difference between abolitionists and pro-slavery fire-eaters was both futile and only delayed the inevitable. Here, the Radical Republicans were in the right. Similarly, many of the major political advances of the 19th and 20th century, the direct election of senators, the establishment of the income tax, the eight hour day, the minimum wage, women’s suffrage, all began as agenda items of the most radical fringe groups in American politics. The legacy of moderatism is quite poor in comparison – tariffs, railroad subsidies, and the gold standard.


To sum up, “moderatism” in public discourse is intellectual malpractice.

As political strategy, it is largely impotent.

As a public virtue, it’s anathema to honest, open, political debate.

So why bother?

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  1. Well put.

    Michael Harrington had a nice name for this sort of thing: utopian pragmatism. (I can’t remember which book that’s from.) The first word is the important one: what you’re calling moderatism is utopian partly in the sense that it assumes there’s a formula for figuring out the perfect solution to every problem, but also in that it tries to move permanently beyond the world of political conflict. It’s ultimately an anti-political position.

    • Yep. I originally had a piece in here about how the Jacobin Terror and the Directorate’s purges were both characterized by an attempt by people who thought that reason would provide universally true answers to political questions and that therefore, people who disagreed with them were dangerous. The Directorate’s purges are especially instructive – they kept trying to get an election that would return a legislature of pragmatic, non-ideological “best men.” Instead, the people would vote in either neo-Jacobins (when the electorate swung left) or monarchists (when the electorate swung right).

  2. […] my decreased comfort with blanket condemnations of things I disagree with, like conservativism and moderatism. And there’s an increase in the importance I place on challenging the way we direct our attention […]

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