Why Does the NY Times Despise Moderates?

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie finds "something odd about the self-described [Democrat] moderates and centrists considering a run for president."  Initially, Mr. Bouie suggests that "'moderation' or 'centrism' means holding broadly popular positions otherwise marginalized by extremists in either party."

Possible Democrat candidates Michael Bloomberg, Terry McAuliffe, and Joe Biden and declared independent candidate Howard Schultz have all presented themselves as "moderates," Bouie says.  Bloomberg is such because he opposes Senator Warren's plan to tax the assets of the wealthy and "the idea of 'Medicare for all.'"  McAuliffe opposes "universal free college," Schultz wants to cut Social Security and Medicare "to shrink the federal deficit," and Biden declines to attack the wealthy or Republicans.

But none of these politicians and potential challengers to President Trump is really moderate, according to Bouie, since the "sweeping social policies" they oppose in fact are all popular.  What earns them the title of "moderate" is their "belief that meaningful progress is possible without a fundamental challenge to those who hold most of the wealth and power in our society."  They want to win the "business community" over to their side; in the case of Bloomberg and Schultz, they are part of that community.

Accommodating the interests of big business is the fatal flaw of the candidates Bouie mentions, because it does not lead to progress.  "Struggle against the powerful, not accommodation of their interests, is how Americans produced the conditions for its greatest social accomplishments like the creation of the welfare state and the toppling of Jim Crow."  "Capitalism" and the "bosses" were together the "vector for oppression and disadvantage," and the struggle against them resulted in the New Deal.  "Without a confrontational (and at times militant) black freedom movement, there is no Civil Rights Act."

No, Bouie asserts, the division within the Democratic Party is not accurately described as one between "'moderates' or 'centrists'" and those who are not, but instead between "those who confront and those who seek to accommodate."  The latter can claim no superior virtue, since confrontation ("[a]ntagonism, indignation, anger") is "necessary for challenging our profound inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity."

Now, moderation, though not "centrism," was until our age understood to be a virtue.  Do we still regard it as such, in any sense?  It would seem that we do, since we are loath to engage in "extremism," and the word "extremist" remains an epithet.  But, plainly, we do not esteem moderation as a virtue, insofar as we call it the propensity to embrace whatever is popular at the time and in the place that we find ourselves (the definition that Bouie suggests at the beginning of his column).  For this would mean that in the middle of a lynch mob, it is moderate to go along; in 1930s Germany, to be a Nazi; and in the Jim Crow South, to be a racist.

We also cannot agree with Bouie that the advancement of humanity ever resulted from assailing "the bosses" and capitalism or that the New Deal solved the problem of the Great Depression.  It is a little unclear why, if Bouie is so sure that the policies he favors enjoy broad popular support, all this militancy is necessary.  Why not just vote the policies in?

Bouie, nonetheless, deserves our gratitude for raising the question of what political moderation is, even as he debunks it.

Bouie makes essentially the same point as does Rush Limbaugh when the radio commentator asks how many books have been written about great moderates in American history.  The answer is none, insofar as moderation is defined as accommodation of the other side, whoever is on it and whatever he wants.  That definition makes moderation seem opposed to courage and anything but virtuous.

Is there, however, another meaning of moderation, one that allows us to understand how it could have been thought an admirable moral quality?  In its original and most basic formulation (Aristotle's), moderation was the correct susceptibility to physical pleasure and pain.  A moderate man will forbear excessive feast, drink, and sex.  He will not find such forbearance painful, but will derive happiness from it and the rest of virtue.

How might this be connected to politics? 

The same ancient source informs us that moderation "preserves our practical wisdom" — the kind of wisdom, distinct from the theoretical, pertinent to the daily business of governance.  Practical wisdom or prudence is finding the most efficacious means to a salutary end — one demonstrably beneficial and just.  It is not the cunning of a criminal or tyrant.

The occasional sex scandals that roil public life might confirm the harmful political effect of pursuing wanton pleasure.  Physical pleasures and pains, however, are not the only kinds.  It is pleasant to triumph over others and to vaunt oneself.  It is also pleasant to be popular with those around us and painful to be scorned or defeated.  It is painful to listen calmly to points of view we despise. 

It is decidedly unpleasant to be called a racist and a plutocrat.  Today, it is easy to avoid such invective by doing what most news organizations, entertainers, academics, and Washington insiders want and then proclaiming it to be moderation.  But what is done for the sake of the pleasant and out of aversion to pain does not denote moderation — precisely the contrary.  It does not reflect courage, either. 

As far as politicians are concerned, along with scorn comes partisan opposition and the possibility of losing office.  Political courage in a democracy is doing your conscience, even if the result is defeat at the polls.  Moderation also is doing what you know to be right, even if the result is that you are reviled rather than praised.  Political moderation and courage are then complimentary rather than antithetical qualities.

There is a tendency, opposed by Bouie, to assume that moderation always leads to the choice of accommodation and compromise over conflict — to finding a middle ground.  Aristotle himself famously defines the virtues as "means" between the "extremes" (e.g., courage as between cowardice and foolhardiness).  This might engender the conclusion that it is simply better to be in the center, whatever the dictates of right and wrong.

But a compromise between what is right and what is wrong is not what Aristotle intends when he refers to a virtuous mean.  Such a compromise is hardly better than what is right and unadulterated by compromise, even if in politics less than what you think right sometimes is all you can get, because the votes are not there.  That is a matter of arithmetic, not morality.  The virtues are defined as means between excesses and deficiencies (of susceptibility to fear, pleasure, etc.) but as extremes of excellence.  There is no such thing as too much virtue.

The foregoing perhaps will become clearer to the reader if he considers its most celebrated iteration in American politics.  When Barry Goldwater in his 1964 nomination acceptance speech said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," he meant that moderation should never be construed to mean an attenuated commitment to the greatest good.

A more extended treatment of the same idea occurred in Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, written the year before Goldwater's speech.  King replied to the criticism that nonviolent civil disobedience (King, unlike Bouie, did not champion "militancy") represented extremism and to the suggestion that he show greater moderation in opposing racial oppression.  Those who scorn Goldwater's remarks as the intemperate outburst of a failed candidate ought to read King's more elaborate paean to a virtuous extremism and his condemnation of the false moderation that accepts injustice rather than disturb those perpetrating it. 

In short, Jamelle Bouie is entirely correct in stating that accommodation of an odious opponent is not to be praised as moderation.  Republicans, in and out of government, are faced with a number of most odious opponents.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie finds "something odd about the self-described [Democrat] moderates and centrists considering a run for president."  Initially, Mr. Bouie suggests that "'moderation' or 'centrism' means holding broadly popular positions otherwise marginalized by extremists in either party."

Possible Democrat candidates Michael Bloomberg, Terry McAuliffe, and Joe Biden and declared independent candidate Howard Schultz have all presented themselves as "moderates," Bouie says.  Bloomberg is such because he opposes Senator Warren's plan to tax the assets of the wealthy and "the idea of 'Medicare for all.'"  McAuliffe opposes "universal free college," Schultz wants to cut Social Security and Medicare "to shrink the federal deficit," and Biden declines to attack the wealthy or Republicans.

But none of these politicians and potential challengers to President Trump is really moderate, according to Bouie, since the "sweeping social policies" they oppose in fact are all popular.  What earns them the title of "moderate" is their "belief that meaningful progress is possible without a fundamental challenge to those who hold most of the wealth and power in our society."  They want to win the "business community" over to their side; in the case of Bloomberg and Schultz, they are part of that community.

Accommodating the interests of big business is the fatal flaw of the candidates Bouie mentions, because it does not lead to progress.  "Struggle against the powerful, not accommodation of their interests, is how Americans produced the conditions for its greatest social accomplishments like the creation of the welfare state and the toppling of Jim Crow."  "Capitalism" and the "bosses" were together the "vector for oppression and disadvantage," and the struggle against them resulted in the New Deal.  "Without a confrontational (and at times militant) black freedom movement, there is no Civil Rights Act."

No, Bouie asserts, the division within the Democratic Party is not accurately described as one between "'moderates' or 'centrists'" and those who are not, but instead between "those who confront and those who seek to accommodate."  The latter can claim no superior virtue, since confrontation ("[a]ntagonism, indignation, anger") is "necessary for challenging our profound inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity."

Now, moderation, though not "centrism," was until our age understood to be a virtue.  Do we still regard it as such, in any sense?  It would seem that we do, since we are loath to engage in "extremism," and the word "extremist" remains an epithet.  But, plainly, we do not esteem moderation as a virtue, insofar as we call it the propensity to embrace whatever is popular at the time and in the place that we find ourselves (the definition that Bouie suggests at the beginning of his column).  For this would mean that in the middle of a lynch mob, it is moderate to go along; in 1930s Germany, to be a Nazi; and in the Jim Crow South, to be a racist.

We also cannot agree with Bouie that the advancement of humanity ever resulted from assailing "the bosses" and capitalism or that the New Deal solved the problem of the Great Depression.  It is a little unclear why, if Bouie is so sure that the policies he favors enjoy broad popular support, all this militancy is necessary.  Why not just vote the policies in?

Bouie, nonetheless, deserves our gratitude for raising the question of what political moderation is, even as he debunks it.

Bouie makes essentially the same point as does Rush Limbaugh when the radio commentator asks how many books have been written about great moderates in American history.  The answer is none, insofar as moderation is defined as accommodation of the other side, whoever is on it and whatever he wants.  That definition makes moderation seem opposed to courage and anything but virtuous.

Is there, however, another meaning of moderation, one that allows us to understand how it could have been thought an admirable moral quality?  In its original and most basic formulation (Aristotle's), moderation was the correct susceptibility to physical pleasure and pain.  A moderate man will forbear excessive feast, drink, and sex.  He will not find such forbearance painful, but will derive happiness from it and the rest of virtue.

How might this be connected to politics? 

The same ancient source informs us that moderation "preserves our practical wisdom" — the kind of wisdom, distinct from the theoretical, pertinent to the daily business of governance.  Practical wisdom or prudence is finding the most efficacious means to a salutary end — one demonstrably beneficial and just.  It is not the cunning of a criminal or tyrant.

The occasional sex scandals that roil public life might confirm the harmful political effect of pursuing wanton pleasure.  Physical pleasures and pains, however, are not the only kinds.  It is pleasant to triumph over others and to vaunt oneself.  It is also pleasant to be popular with those around us and painful to be scorned or defeated.  It is painful to listen calmly to points of view we despise. 

It is decidedly unpleasant to be called a racist and a plutocrat.  Today, it is easy to avoid such invective by doing what most news organizations, entertainers, academics, and Washington insiders want and then proclaiming it to be moderation.  But what is done for the sake of the pleasant and out of aversion to pain does not denote moderation — precisely the contrary.  It does not reflect courage, either. 

As far as politicians are concerned, along with scorn comes partisan opposition and the possibility of losing office.  Political courage in a democracy is doing your conscience, even if the result is defeat at the polls.  Moderation also is doing what you know to be right, even if the result is that you are reviled rather than praised.  Political moderation and courage are then complimentary rather than antithetical qualities.

There is a tendency, opposed by Bouie, to assume that moderation always leads to the choice of accommodation and compromise over conflict — to finding a middle ground.  Aristotle himself famously defines the virtues as "means" between the "extremes" (e.g., courage as between cowardice and foolhardiness).  This might engender the conclusion that it is simply better to be in the center, whatever the dictates of right and wrong.

But a compromise between what is right and what is wrong is not what Aristotle intends when he refers to a virtuous mean.  Such a compromise is hardly better than what is right and unadulterated by compromise, even if in politics less than what you think right sometimes is all you can get, because the votes are not there.  That is a matter of arithmetic, not morality.  The virtues are defined as means between excesses and deficiencies (of susceptibility to fear, pleasure, etc.) but as extremes of excellence.  There is no such thing as too much virtue.

The foregoing perhaps will become clearer to the reader if he considers its most celebrated iteration in American politics.  When Barry Goldwater in his 1964 nomination acceptance speech said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," he meant that moderation should never be construed to mean an attenuated commitment to the greatest good.

A more extended treatment of the same idea occurred in Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, written the year before Goldwater's speech.  King replied to the criticism that nonviolent civil disobedience (King, unlike Bouie, did not champion "militancy") represented extremism and to the suggestion that he show greater moderation in opposing racial oppression.  Those who scorn Goldwater's remarks as the intemperate outburst of a failed candidate ought to read King's more elaborate paean to a virtuous extremism and his condemnation of the false moderation that accepts injustice rather than disturb those perpetrating it. 

In short, Jamelle Bouie is entirely correct in stating that accommodation of an odious opponent is not to be praised as moderation.  Republicans, in and out of government, are faced with a number of most odious opponents.