Can You Reason with a Radical? On Aurelian Craiutu’s “Why Not Moderation?”

Rahul Sagar examines Aurelian Craiutu’s “Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals.”

Can You Reason with a Radical? On Aurelian Craiutu’s “Why Not Moderation?”

Why Not Moderation? Letters to Young Radicals by Aurelian Craiutu. Cambridge University Press. 260 pages.

WHY NOT MODERATION? Letters to Young Radicals, the new book by political science professor Aurelian Craiutu, is a valuable, important, and timely contribution to the pressing debate over the future of liberal democracy in the United States. It addresses three distinct questions: Do we need moderation today? What does moderation demand of individuals and institutions? And can moderation be cultivated in the US? Craiutu gives thought-provoking answers to these questions in a gentle and accommodating style (the book is written in epistolary form), which makes his work a very welcome corrective to the highly polarized spirit of our times.

Why Not Moderation? comprises five parts. Part I opens with a dialogue between Craiutu and two students, “Lauren” and “Rob,” who represent, respectively, the angry Left and the bitter Right, the two poles that dominate the public sphere in the United States today. Each side complains that “liberal values and institutions are rotten to the core” because they give the other side too much leeway. Craiutu concedes that their unhappiness is not without foundation, but then tries to convince them that their disdain for liberal democracy—which is to say, for the legitimacy of each other’s views—is excessive. The broad implication is important: liberal democracy in the United States can only be “saved” if citizens behave more moderately.

Parts II and III set out to show “Lauren” and “Rob” that moderation is a virtue worth practicing. Haunting the discussion here is Barry Goldwater’s cutting dictum: “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Craiutu responds vigorously to the charge, explaining why moderation is not the same thing as “centrism” or “compromise.” Moderation is, he convincingly argues, an “ethos” that leads individuals and institutions to display “modesty and humility.” This ethos has two foundations. The first is philosophy—that is, moral skepticism. Moderation relies on our seeing that not all good things go together, making pluralism and balancing inevitable parts of political life. The other is history. Here moderation relies on our absorbing the miseries that follow when opposing sides believe that they alone have “justice” on their side.

This defense of moderation does not put Craiutu’s worries to rest. He fears that his interlocutors, being “passionate” people who love “radical” ideas, will decry the “bland doctrine” of moderation—the consequences be damned. His anxiety motivates parts III and IV of the book, where Craiutu tries to persuade his interlocutors that moderation really is radical in its own way. To this end, he casts warm light on what moderation demands in terms of personal behavior and institutional arrangements. He cites the observations of a wide range of characters, such as Michael Oakeshott and George Washington, whose ideas and lives teach the importance of “trimming.” He argues, movingly, on behalf of the moderate who knows that “it takes a lot of bravery to remain moderate when everyone around you is immoderate and rude.” The courage of the moderate, he memorably writes, is like that of a “courageous […] tightrope walker.”

Part V is where, having explained why moderation is both sorely needed and truly meaningful, Craiutu turns to consider “the prospects for moderation in America today.” He offers two pieces of practical advice: moderates ought to seek “leverage” inside the two main political parties, which requires that they “build a compelling political brand.” Were this to happen, Craiutu concludes, moderation would be perceived for what it truly is: a “magnetic idea” that can “help build civic bridges.”

This is the only part of the book that feels underdeveloped. Craiutu’s advice is well-meant, but it may be—for lack of a better word—a bit “immoderate” in its own way. Moderation is a friend of democracy, but is the reverse true? A moderate knows that it is unwise to exalt one value above all others. How, then, to foster moderation in a democracy, which exalts equality? Consider from whence moderation emerges. It has two sources: education, which forms character, and experience, which shapes memories. The former is imparted in the home, the classroom, and the assembly where parents, teachers, and the elderly discipline the unwise. The latter is imparted on the battlefield where zeal goes to die, and at the graveyard where sorrow comes alive. There is very little work done by democracy in this story.

The notion that moderation can be nurtured by reason and persuasion between free and equal citizens evades the embarrassing truth that humans, the most unsociable of beings, need loving lashes to keep them sociable. Craiutu puts his finger on the problem when he declares in the book’s conclusion that “moderation is a demanding virtue which requires a unique set of skills that not everyone possesses.” What he does not tell us is how a democracy that wishes to remain moderate ought to handle the immoderate who browbeat their opponents. It will not do to believe that the immoderate are a minority. If they were, we would not be here. The dilemma moderates face is encased in the book’s subtitle: Letters to Young Radicals. Has this constituency ever been celebrated for its reasonableness? The Red Guards in China had available to them the magnificent great books of their civilization and the weight of some 2,000 years of experience. Did it make an ounce of difference? It was the venerable that was consigned to the flames—until misery and destitution reenthroned common sense. So it may be here.

The fear, then, is that Why Not Moderation? may not be read by those who most need its counsel. But it certainly deserves to be read by everyone else. The arguments are fine specimens of balance and tact. Craiutu employs an admirable range of examples from literature, history, and art. There are also charming autobiographical elements—I wish there were more—that lend the text a poignant character. Those born in this country may be baffled by the rapidity with which the United States has descended into warring camps, but Craiutu’s injured tone reveals how bizarre the spectacle looks to a large-hearted émigré raised on the “‘wrong’ side of the Iron Curtain.” Do you even realize what you are throwing away? he seems to plead with his hotheaded interlocutors.

Perhaps sensing that he will not persuade them, Craiutu signs off with plaintive remarks about the future of the moderate in the US: “Where will he go from here? Where will he seek refuge? Nobody can tell for sure.”


Rahul Sagar is a Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. Prior to this, he was an associate professor of political science at Yale NUS College and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.

LARB Contributor

Rahul Sagar is a Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. Prior to this, he was an associate professor of political science at Yale NUS College and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. His work has been published in major journals, edited volumes, and media outlets such as BBC, The Washington Post, and The Indian Express. He has written a variety of books, including To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics (2022)The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government (2021), and Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy (2013). He has a PhD in government from Harvard University and a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) from the University of Oxford.


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!