A Moderation Manifesto

By Karol Edward Sołtan September 15, 2013

A Moderation Manifesto

A Virtue for Courageous Minds by Aurelian Craiutu
Rule and Ruin by Geoffrey Kabaservice

THE TIME SHOULD COME when we will have to take moderation seriously again. What does it mean to be a moderate? What is moderation after all? What does it require? What is its past? How about its future?

Such questions are prompted by observing new forms of extremism and radicalism around the world, including at home, in the Republican Party. This is a party where the radicals call themselves “conservatives,” of all things, leaving serious conservatives like The New York Times columnist David Brooks somehow homeless, while others, such as Andrew Sullivan, have become President Obama’s enthusiastic supporters. In a recent essay Brooks described his political philosophy as moderate; a few days later Sullivan wrote on his blog that he could not agree more. Do we have a moderation revival? Perhaps. Brooks cited one book that would certainly count as a work central to any such revival: Aurelian Craiutu’s A Virtue for Courageous Minds — more on which later.

If we broaden our historical perspective, things look even worse: we still live in the shadow of the 20th-century extremisms, if not the extremisms of the French Revolution as well. This is why we can press our questioning even further. Isn’t there something unbalanced and destructive, something extreme-driven and profoundly immoderate about modern civilization itself? Mohandas Gandhi, for one, thought so. Something that we might call “transformative moderation,” inspired by the examples of Gandhi himself, as well as by Martin Luther King Jr., was instrumental in peacefully bringing down communism in Europe, and in all the many “color revolutions” since then. We may thus seem to have a deep and promising nonviolent alternative to the violent tradition of the French Revolution. Yet, we also notice an emerging awareness, though still not fully articulated, of how the destructiveness of industrial society demands a moderating response. As such, a more serious, more ambitious culture of moderation seems to be on the horizon, which is a source of reasonable hope. Yet, as long as it remains inarticulate, we may miss our opportunity.

One way to start deepening our understanding of moderation is to look at its history. There we can locate resources for re-elaborating the very idea of moderation, just as we can come across inspiring stories about its forgotten or neglected heroes. My comments will center on two books: Craiutu’s A Virtue for Courageous Minds, a history of moderation in French political thought between Montesquieu and the 1830 Revolution, and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin, a history of the Republican Party’s moderates, mostly between 1960 and 1980, when they still mattered. It is fitting, not just ironic, to bring together two places where you least expect to encounter moderation: revolutionary France and the modern Republican Party.


Kabaservice has written a long, detailed history. It begins in the moderates’ glory days, when they were trying to capture and preserve the spirit of Eisenhower Republicanism. Arthur Larson, one of their leading lights, “depicted modern Republicanism as, in a sense, Eisenhower’s personal qualities writ large [...] as much a temperament as an ideology, espousing balance, reasonableness, prudence and common sense.” Its program was “to rationalize and reform the New Deal rather than repeal it.” That, in a nutshell, is still the core of the moderate program in contemporary politics. Yet, today, we find it prominent only in the Democratic Party. In the Republican Party, the goal since Reagan seems to have been to return to the original plan: repeal the New Deal. Along the way, the trend has become increasingly radical and irresponsible.

The Republican moderates’ high point came in 1967, when a distinctly moderate George Romney was polling ahead of all the other candidates in the presidential race. The book ends with a long account of their slow, yet steady collapse, leading into the Reagan presidency. To set the mood, Kabaservice borrows his chapter titles from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” which he rightly describes as the a classic expression of moderate foreboding: “Things fall apart;the centre cannot hold [...] The best lack all conviction.”

This book is likely to be, for a long time, the definitive history of its subject. Many of the details unearthed by Kabaservice are worth preserving for a history of the larger cause of moderation. We discover, for example, Tom Hayden writing a 1961 article in Mademoiselle about a new wave of student activism, with three significant new organizations founded in 1960: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, on the left), Young Americans for Freedom (YAF, on the right), and a group supporting a new magazine called Advance.

This is a wonderful find: Tom Hayden, later the well-known student radical, and later still a California celebrity, writing — in Mademoiselle, of all places — about new student activism, long before real student activism broke out. But, for the history of moderation, something else is striking. Does anyone remember Advance? It was the brainchild of Bruce Chapman and George Gilder, created to promote and elaborate a moderate Republicanism. In the magazine’s first editorial Chapman wrote that they planned to borrow from both liberals and conservatives in order to develop a “progressive conservatism” — something that would not be “mere moderation.” Reading these passages I was reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, and his 1971 liberal-socialist-conservative manifesto, which some have claimed to be the ideology of Poland’s Solidarity, in its glory days of fighting communism.

SDS has its contemporary descendants, enamored of participatory democracy, in the Occupy movement. YAF continues to live on in the Tea Party. But what serious movement of reform continues the Advance tradition? The latter did not last long, though another group of Republican moderates, the Ripon Society, could be seen as a continuation. For a while it played a significant role in American politics; it still exists, though it does not seem to matter much. If one actually formulated a program of energetic transformational moderation (not “mere moderation”), freed from the partisan Republican constraints of Advance, would this not serve a great social need?

Certainly, it has been a long-standing dream — in the US, revolutionary France, or elsewhere — to articulate a notion of moderation that is somehow grander, more passionate, more inspiring than the one usually on offer. William Buckley’s main complaint about Eisenhower, that he was boring, is a common response to moderation. This seems to be the standard complaint about moderates in general, including in Craiutu’s reading of revolutionary France. Moderates everywhere are gray and boring; some wear these labels proudly, which does not prevent them from still being gray and boring. As if this were not enough, Kabaservice’s and Craiutu’s moderates are also for the most part political failures.

Moderates could be, and have been, dismissed as irrelevant. Yet if we are to build a moderate alternative future, we must allow them to inspire us; we must make them relevant, even many years after their engagement in politics ended.


Aurelian Craiutu has written a very different book. This is not a historian’s effort to write a definitive history, discovering lost archives and unearthing obscure sources. It is a history of political thought that attempts to articulate the political concept of moderation. The book’s character dictates its structure: the great moderate thinkers of the 1748-1830 period in France, Montesquieu, Necker, Mounier (and the other Monarchiens). Madame de Staël, and Constant, are each given a chapter. Some of them are not well-known figures or are not known as political thinkers (as in Necker’s case). That is precisely part of Craiutu’s point: he is revealing to us a partly forgotten and mostly neglected tradition of European moderation.

But Craiutu’s book is not simply a “history of ideas” in the narrow sense, nor even a history of neglected ideas. It has a broader relevance and should be read by many not otherwise interested in the history of French political thought. On the first page of the book, Craiutu writes: “In my opinion, the quintessential political virtue is moderation, and I have written this book to justify this claim.” This is a bit misleading. Craiutu plans a multi-volume project on moderation; after this book, we can expect another on moderation in 19th-century France, another on moderation in England, and finally one on moderation in the contemporary world. The whole project, I take it, will aim to justify the claim that moderation is the most important political virtue. And we can expect this project to be in part intellectual history, and in part an effort to articulate what moderation can and should mean, especially in the world of today and tomorrow.

“Moderation,” Craiutu writes, “resembles a lost archipelago that must be rediscovered by historians and political theorists.” So he looks for the multiple islands, the different examples of moderate thought and moderate action. But we can press the metaphor even further. The islands are what we can see above water; if we try to see deeper, we should be able to outline an underwater mountain chain that gives the archipelago unity, as well as deeper foundations.

What did Craiutu’s moderates favor? They were inspired by the English constitutional model and by the Glorious Revolution. They favored some form of mixed and balanced constitution, with three components — the monarch, a senate, and a lower chamber — an arrangement with deep roots in the moderate political imagination, going back to Aristotle, Polybius, and the Renaissance republics. They, most notably Constant, also supported incorporating a “neutral power” in the constitution, which would have a moderating influence, especially on the inevitable conflicts between the other powers. In the context of the Revolution, the moderates favored what we would now recognize as a form of negotiated transition from tyranny, a much-practiced formula since the last decades of the 20th century. But in 1789 that failed, and a real revolution followed.

The thinkers Craiutu presents as the main exemplars of moderation are more commonly understood as liberals. He writes that their “concept of political moderation must be seen as a gateway to their larger vision of a free society based on the principles of constitutionalism.” Yet, from the perspective of the 21st century, we can take moderation even more seriously, not only as an instrument of a free society (another version of what we already have), but also as a stand-alone project to transform the world’s institutions and modern cultures in a distinctly moderate direction.


Almost everyone serious about moderation suggests a contrast between the bland or gray variety, on the one hand, and a more ambitious, more transformational and inspiring alternative, on the other. I have myself tried “militant moderation” and “vivid moderation” as labels; “transformational moderation” also seems very apt. Among examples are Gandhi, King (a quintessential transformational moderate, especially when he famously criticized the more conventional moderates in the Letter from Birmingham Jail), and the anti-communist opposition (such as the Solidarity trade union in Poland) that was instrumental in toppling communism in Europe.

Ever since the Clinton presidency, with its commitment to a Third Way program (shared with Tony Blair and others around the world), the Democratic Party has had something of a monopoly on moderation in the US. Two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, have aspired to be transformative moderates, to provoke an American renewal. On the whole, it has been a disappointment. This is perhaps something of a paradox: the US is a country whose political DNA is deeply pervaded, from its founding, by Madisonian transformative moderation — a country in which transformative moderation has been given new form and new energy by Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, it is still apparently difficult to translate transformative moderation into an effective program of reforms.

Drawing on Craiutu’s book, and as my own constructive response to his efforts to revive the moderate project, let me suggest a short “code of moderate principles” that can support both the everyday moderation, always at risk of being too bland, and the transformational moderation that we need so badly, but which we seem unable to formulate more adequately. The moderate code that I propose consists of four principles: First, in every situation (be it local or global), search for, or build, a complex moral and institutional center. Second, oppose human destructiveness, its power and effects (including war, ecological destruction, or putting a gun to someone’s head to obtain something). Third, recognize human cognitive and moral limits, but without assuming the worst; we are not all depraved idiots. And fourth, recognize the value of continuity, and of loyalty to our inheritance, which allow us to take part in some of the grandest of human projects, handed down from generation to generation.

This code of principles identifies four “pillars” of moderation. Let us investigate them more closely. Would this be a project committed to one master ideal, and hence dismissive of the need to balance fundamental ideals and principles? That cannot be. A moderate project entirely dismissive of ideals, content with the power of arbitrary human will? That is not moderation either. A project committed to war or violent revolution? No. Or one committed to maximum use of threats and of coercion? That cannot be either. A moderate project dismissive of all our inheritance and of the value of continuity, eager to start ex nihilo, independent of the burdens of the past? That does not sound like moderation. Or a moderate project fully confident in its possession of the truth, and acting accordingly? No. Or maybe a moderate project dismissive of human reason, and relying instead on raw will and intuition? Not that either.

A simple code of the moderate project, formulated in this way, is consistent both with everyday moderation and with the more transformational variety found in the politics and the political thought of a Gandhi or a King. None of these four principles of moderation require that we abandon political and intellectual ambitions. Nor do they call on us to disparage passion, against reason or interest. Moderates do disparage destructive passions, but passions can also be the engine for making the world better and for protecting it from damage or destruction.

In his book Craiutu emphasizes the first, third, and fourth of these principles. He does not seriously consider the second one. Yet, a broader view of the moderate project, extended into the 21st century, seems to me hard to imagine without opposition to human destructiveness. Craiutu also prominently includes another principle, which I have left out: he writes that moderation refuses to see the world in Manichaean terms.

I agree with much Craiutu says about moderation, but not with this. Moderates can — it seems to me — divide the world into the forces of good and the agents of evil; they just need to do this in a properly moderate way. If we think of human destructiveness as the enemy, and if we see the frontlines of this battle within each person and each group, then the idea that we ought to engage in a battle of creation against destruction can be very much a moderate idea. In this battle we can turn to violence only as an absolutely last resort. Again, this is not a battle of us versus them — the frontline is within each one of us.

The four principles allow deeply transformative forms of moderation. They allow, first of all, a quest for truth, including truth in politics. The third principle, with its recognition of limited human cognitive and moral capacities, disallows a quest for certainty, or any conclusion that one has reached the truth. But a quest for truth in a fallibilist and experimental spirit, the kind of politics exemplified by Gandhi’s satyagraha, is very much allowed as a form of moderation.

These basic commitments of moderation also allow large and ambitious projects, extended over time, developing in stages, with universal and global aspirations. They allow, for example, a project of a new and more moderate stage of our civilization — less destructive, more balanced, and less enamored with the ideas and practices of revolutionary politics. This form of moderation is open to the possibility of taking the idea of human being as creator to the hilt, and not letting the radicals have a monopoly on it. The greatest exemplars of human creativity are shared projects that develop gradually. The biggest and most encompassing of them evolve in characteristic cycles, which we see in science, technology, and economics, as well as in the larger patterns of civilizational development, typically going through periodic crises and rebirths. In European history a crisis of the 14th century was followed by the Renaissance of the 15th. The crisis of the 17th century was followed by the Enlightenment of the 18th. Humanity’s capacity for renewal has come through for us before. Why should it abandon us now, after the crisis of the 20th century?

Radicals and extremists love their revolutions, we transformational moderates prefer renaissances. So we should pick up, articulate, and extend the goal of a renewal of modern civilization, an American renewal (picking up, and taking seriously, the rhetoric of the Clinton and Obama presidencies), but also a global one. That really would be to take moderation seriously.


Karol Edward Sołtan is at work on a book titled Civic Moderation.

LARB Contributor

Karol Edward Sołtan teaches political science at the University of Maryland in College Park, and co-directs the Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts. He writes on civic ideals, civic moderation, and constitutionalism. He has done work for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, and advised the Kurdistan government in the constitutional negotiations in Iraq. He is at work on a book titled Civic Moderation.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!