I have a personal joke about the world’s shortest books. Some of them are related to my professional interest in military history, and include such titles as: Bulgarian Military Victories and Successful Bolivian Wars. Others are related to my interest in politics, and include Successful Communist Regimes and the subject of today’s blog, Great Moderate Victories. All too often in politics, especially in a period of crisis like we are in, being a moderate is like being roadkill: he who walks in the middle of the road is run over from both sides.
In a crisis there are generally three sorts of people. There are those who believe that an existing but crumbling social order is worth defending with their lives and their sacred honor, who believe that the status quo must be preserved at all costs. We term these people conservatives, though this need not be “right-wing” in any way. Likewise, there are people who are willing to give their lives and sacred honor in order to make what they see as necessary (if inevitably painful) and radical changes in what is a corrupt and decaying social order. We term these people radicals of one stripe or another, though they need not be “left-wing” and they can just as easily have different ideology.
What connects these two groups of people is a shared commitment to an ideology or a temperament. Some people may blindly despise or blindly seek change, based on whether fears of tyranny or anarchy are stronger, or based on one’s own position during the time of crisis–the more money and power you have the less willing you are to risk its loss, for example. If you are committed to principles, then by definition you are willing to fight for them, and would rather fight for them and lose than give them up without a fight merely for the sake of a temporary peace. In a time of crisis, many people may be committed to the wrong principles, but so long as they are committed to some principles they will inevitably seek to push the crisis state to a definitive fight between different ideals.
A moderate, on the other hand, is only committed to the principle of peace and harmony. In fact, it might be said that the chief commitment of a moderate is simply to getting along. If there is someone who is deeply hurt over even necessarily conflict, wondering why brother is warring against brother and stabbing each other with rhetorical (if not literal) blows, who makes long (and deeply eloquent) odes to agape love, and who wonders “why can’t we all get along,” such a person is a moderate. These are the people in the middle who get run over by both sides. Though I am a nuanced person by nature and not particularly extremist, I am by temperament far more of a fighter than I am a moderate. I would prefer peace, but when push comes to shove I always ready for a fight, having known little but warfare in my life despite being a patient listener and a basically friendly person.
Henry Clay (Abraham’s beau ideal of a statesman) was a typical moderate in many ways. A Kentucky slaveowner, he was not favorable to either radical abolitionism nor was he a firebrand of the Deep South. As a Whig he favored greater government promotion of trade and business but when push came to shove he was always willing to compromise, and his first instinct was to soothe over disagreements with even-handed deals where everyone could get something that would avoid a bigger conflict. Not surprisingly, as a moderate Henry Clay was a historically poor presidential candidate. Moderates generally lose when faced against more principled opposition, and Henry Clay practically wrote the book on losing presidential elections, coming in 4th place in 1824 (after which he smoothed over the disagreements with what became known as the “corrupt bargain”), losing to Jackson in 1832, and then losing to James Polk in 1844. Most of the moderates who have followed in his example, people like James Blaine, Thomas Dewey, Bob Dole, and so on, have fared scarcely better than he did in American politics.
All moderates tend to do in crisis periods is delay the inevitable. They raise debt ceilings in the hope that time will heal wounds and don’t solve the fundamental indebtedness of society. They draw lines dividing free states from slave states and overlook the irrepressible conflict between liberty and oppression. They form supercommittees and write omnibus bills and betray the principles their supporters care deeply about simply for the sake of a few days, weeks, months, or years of peace before the inevitable storm breaks on their heads. Their vain hope to buy time usually only buys them the reputation as cowards and poultroons unwilling to stand for any principles and to cave in to evildoers intent on preserving ill-gotten power.
Why don’t moderates see this? This is the great failing of moderates, that “great moderate victories” like the Missouri Compromise (even more so the Compromise of 1850) only end up being the prologue to greater troubles and divisions. What is worse is that moderates spend their political capital and waste goodwill in the period before the fight, as the crisis is building up, and so they are unable to perform the good offices toward reconciliation that their moderate and gentle temperament is best suited for in the aftermath of a decisive showdown. By then moderates are discredited, leading to witch hunts and lengthened bad blood. It would be better if moderates could recognize that a fight was inevitable and to spend their efforts on binding up the nation’s wounds after the inevitable conflict rather than making the bad blood between the two sides spoiling for a fight worse by delaying the storm.
Moderates are necessary because they remind us that not every fight is a fight of principle. Sometimes there are merely miscommunications and some of us (myself included) are sometimes a bit too quick to pull out the weapons and start warring. There are cases (many cases) where a win-win solution is possible or where a principled compromise can be made that preserves the dignity and self-respect of all parties. This can be all too easily forgotten by those of us who are more feisty and combative. On the other hand, some fights are fights of principle, and in cases where good and evil are involved there is no middle ground between such matters. Moderates too often fail to discern the difference between merely political disagreements and moral ones that have no possible or genuine middle ground (problems like slavery or abortion, for example). The desire for peace, no less than the desire for war, can lead one astray.
So, the reason why the book “Great Moderate Victories” is such a small book is not because moderates are bad or evil, but rather because their gifts (like the gifts of so many of us) are put to the wrong ends. All too often they try to keep people together who do not belong together and who follow different masters, or try to prevent very necessary fights from taking place. When moderates do this they lose credibility with those who fight for righteousness sake, and who become men of blood crusading against evil, and sometimes forgetting that those they war against are human beings too with genuine needs and concerns.
So what I suggest is that those moderates I know cease the misguided attempts to force people together or force compromises, and instead serve as genuine diplomats. When a serious crisis or dispute exists, it is necessary to determine what is truly at stake. What is the real disagreement about? Those who are moderate are best equipped to talk with those on both sides about the real issues, to make sure that they are framed in such ways as not to inflame tensions but to recognize divides and gulfs where they exist. And after one side wins or another, moderates ought to spend their political capital binding the wounds and making sure that a loss of position does not mean a loss of self-respect or dignity. That would be a moderate victory worth writing about. Too bad it never seems to work out that way.