Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Moderation in the Realm of Politics”
November 13, 2017
“Moderation in all things, especially moderation.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
When considering moderation in politics, we must differentiate between outcomes and process – ideologies versus behavior. The French political philosopher Montesquieu claimed humans naturally migrate toward the center – that policies are best that accommodate the greatest number. On the other hand, Adam Smith, in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, suggested it is moderation in social interactions, regardless of political opinions, which allow people to relate to and understand one another.
Most Americans believe in a mixture of government and personal independence – an equilibrium allowing the country to prosper, while preserving the obligations society demands. Politics is the search for that balance, but it is a Sisyphean struggle that never satisfies everyone. Polarization is today’s political nemesis. Mainstream media argues that extremism, especially from the right, has made people yearn for moderation. As well, blame is laid on social media that gives expression to myriad views and inspires populist politicians to take advantage of the resulting (seemingly) broken system. Blame is also attributed to media outlets like C-SPAN, venues for posturing politicians playing to their ideological bases.
Those desirous for moderation in politics often hark back to the 1950s, a period seen as relatively quiet – a time of normalcy, to borrow a word from the 1920s. But that era of uniformity, in the long history of our country, was atypical. The number of newspapers had declined, and was still falling. Talk radio did not exist. Television was in its infancy, with only three network television stations, each with fifteen-minute or half-hour news segments. There was little difference between John Chancellor of NBC, Walter Cronkite of CBS and John Daly of ABC. There were no forums for alternative views. We were trapped in a monolith, with little option but to conform. But that is not as it always was. Pamphleteers and writers of broadsheets, in the early years of our republic, provided thousands of people the opportunity to vent individual opinions, much like bloggers today.
Five years ago, David Brooks wrote: “The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping opposite sides balanced…that most public issues involve trade-offs.” But he added, “Being moderate does not mean being tepid.” I agree. It is not moderate outcomes we need, but moderation in the way we present and debate ideas – we should be civil, but should never underestimate the rarity and value of freedom. It is fundamental to our being, as Senator Barry Goldwater made clear when he declared in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In the years since Goldwater spoke, our government has become more bureaucratic and, consequently, less free. Those who support more government search for opportunities that give breath to their desire for more bureaucracy. We saw it in the last Administration, from the environment to healthcare to education. The internet, its ubiquity, the memes it creates and its unwitting promotion of extremism, is another example. Claims that Russia hacked our election has given legitimacy to the demand for more regulation of the internet and social media. “The Economist” jumped into the fray this past week, with a title story sub-headlined, “Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis.” The article referenced the disinformation campaigns of Vladimir Putin’s Russia into Ukraine, France, Germany and the U.S. They quoted officials from Facebook who claimed that Russian-paid ads reached about 40% of our population. But, keep in mind, Facebook has said that Russian ads added $100,000 to revenues last year, while total fourth quarter 2016 ad revenues were $8.81 billion. In the scheme of things, Russia was not that important to Facebook. Social media has allowed millions to express themselves, some in polarizing fashion, with many – perhaps most – making unsupported allegations. But, legitimate opinions, based on facts and solid work, are also expressed. (I could not write and publish as I do, without the internet.) Separating fact from fiction is difficult. In 1971, the economist Herbert Simon warned: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” With knowledge doubling every twelve months, the amount of data readily available has vastly increased and methods of communication are more varied and numerous than forty-six years ago. But, we restrict it at our peril.
Attempts to control or regulate social media lead to bigger concerns. Who, for example, will watch the watchers? Could not this become Orwell’s Big Brother in Oceania? The problem is not dissimilar to attempts to control campaign finance spending. Those in favor may be well-intentioned, but consequences are not always as intended. Well-funded candidates with smart lawyers find loopholes. I am not an anarchist, but I do know that every regulation imposed diminishes someone’s freedom. As a paid-up citizen of the U.S., I appreciate the need for government and regulation, but I also know that authoritarianism can descend from a bureaucratic administrative state.
In his recent book, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in the Age of Extremes, Aurelian Craitu, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, wrote that Plato defined moderation as “the virtue that allows us to control our passions, emotions and desires.” He noted that democratic institutions depend on politicians acting with “self-restraint, common sense and moderation;” yet “we live in a world of hyperbole and political intransigence.” In such a world, “moderation appears as a bland, incoherent and undesirable virtue,” unlikely to succeed in a political campaign. (Think of Mitt Romney – smart, decent, but unexciting.)
Political extremism does cause people to yearn for moderation. But, we should be careful, less moderation leads to uniformity. Many want the balance of which David Brooks wrote. But, do we arrive there with moderate-thinking politicians? Or, are we better off with those who believe passionately in their causes, but are flexible and pragmatically inclined to accept what they can? Like Stuart Little’s quest, the search for perfection in government goes on. We are a diverse nation, with multiple ideologies. We can and should debate issues, but in a forum of civility where principles are not sacrificed and where moderators (and the media) are impartial. It is compromise that is missing in Washington. When selective colleges put together freshmen classes they don’t seek the best all-round high school seniors; they look for the best musician, the best athlete, the best artist, the best math, science, history and literature students – all ‘extremists’ in their fields – to compose, in composite, a class that reflects the ideal they desire. Should not Washington have the best legislators, men and women who are principled but not inflexible?
Professor Craitu added: “An able politician…resembles a good funambulist: he or she needs balance in all respects, must be prudent, alert and quick to react…He or she must have the courage to go against the grain when needed, and should always demand the other side be heard on any controversial topic.” Self-righteousness and partisanship have become common in Washington. The moderation we need is in behavior, not policies. One should not be moderate in one’s views toward liberty, freedom and democracy.