Moderation: Whatever It Is, It’s Overrated

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as Truth, and as uncompromising as Justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.

The words of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, from the first issue of his newspaper The Liberator, are inspiring to our post-moderation-on-slavery ears. I applaud Jason Sorens’s contribution arguing that moderation isn’t inherently attractive and is often positively damaging. “Moderation” is an indexical term, like its cohort “extremism,” and by itself has little meaning. But in a world where, say, drug prohibition is the status quo, the “extreme” position is to argue for legalization of all drugs for purchase by adults. The “moderate” position is apparently to roll back some penalties for “soft” drugs while doubling down on punishing opioid users and the doctors who “over prescribe.”

But drug prohibition is evil. In fact, I would argue that the drug war is the evilest thing the federal government has ever done except for slavery. On that point, I am in earnest and I will not equivocate.

Practicing such “extremism” can be a lonely endeavor, as libertarians know. We were “immoderate” on issues such as gay marriage and drug legalization before it was cool, and we will continue to be “immoderate” on issues such as war and immigration.

On some issues, such as free speech and free trade, the “extreme” position—near absolute freedom for both—seemed to be the “moderate” one for a few decades. We now see support eroding for both, and of course America’s protections for free speech are regarded as extreme throughout the Western world. But on those issues too, I will not equivocate.

Yes, moderation is overrated.

Darrell West’s response to my essay makes good points about whether a return to federalism would in fact reduce polarization and conflict. I think polarization and conflict would remain, but it wouldn’t matter that much if your political opponents don’t have undue control over your life. If we understood, for example, that the federal government essentially has no constitutionally legitimate role in health care, then we can stop talking about a national “Medicare-for-all” program and focus on state-based solutions. People could then vote with their feet and sort themselves into more-or-less like-minded communities that pursue broadly common goals.

But, as West points out, “morality issues” like abortion will still be a problem. This is also true, but that’s just another reason why Roe v. Wade was not only wrongly decided as a matter of constitutional law, it was strategically ill-considered. Nothing has torn our country apart more than imposing a single, nationwide rule for abortion. It galvanized the Evangelical movement and pushed them into the arms of the Republican Party. It helped foster the conservative/libertarian legal movement, and it helped turn our judicial confirmations into acrimonious farces. Few things better demonstrate the validity of my general thesis—that one-size-fits-all policies imposed on 330 million diverse people will create animosity and polarization—than abortion.

In his response, Geoffrey Kabaservice makes an interesting point about Republicans being more at fault for polarization, which I think is probably true, but it is worth considering why this happened. I am no Republican, to say the least, but if we take actual, worthy-of-the name conservatives—conservatives like Jonah Goldberg—and examine their beliefs and history as a movement, we might get an idea about why conservatives went “extreme” faster than the left.

You can’t understand the modern conservative movement without understanding it as a persecution movement. Conservatism in the 70s and 80s was carried along by the rise of Reagan, the emergence of right-wing talk radio (especially Limbaugh), and publications like National Review. The growing conservative media had a message that resonated with many: they’re lying to you. “They” were the four main institutions that dominated the dissemination of political and cultural information: public schools, universities, Hollywood, and the mainstream media. All were controlled by the left, and all told a story that had reached the status of “received wisdom.”

I grew up learning that story. FDR’s New Deal saved America. Recycling is always worth it. Public schools are essential to a developed nation. Unions help workers. There’s a significant gender pay gap due to discrimination. Gun control works, and more is needed. The minimum wage is necessary. Et cetera.

Some of these claims may be correct, but all of them are legitimately contentious. Rarely, however, was any attempt made to show the other side. Upon hearing the other side, perhaps by tuning into Rush Limbaugh or picking up National Review, many future conservatives and libertarians were legitimately shocked and a little angered at the bias of the left-wing cultural milieu.

Right-wing radio, and eventually Fox News, became a near salvific force in many people’s lives. They embraced what my colleague Julian Sanchez has termed “epistemic closure.” And, despite the dominance of right-wing talk radio and the eventual dominance of Fox News, conservatives developed and cultivated deep persecution complex about how their ideas and values were presented and received by the “outside” world. That resentment and epistemic closure eventually boiled over in the form of Donald Trump.

While this story that many conservatives tell themselves is not entirely accurate, it is accurate enough to better understand modern conservatives—and some libertarians. The mainstream media was, and is, biased against conservatives. The New York Times hasn’t endorsed a Republican for president since Eisenhower in 1956. The Washington Post has never endorsed a Republican for president and, in 2014, it endorsed 44 Democrats and 3 Republicans for D.C., Virginia, and Maryland races. If these numbers were flipped, Democrats would trust both papers as little as modern Republicans do.

People can lament Republican “extremism,” but I think it is important to realize how the left’s domination of cultural institutions helped create it.

And, on that point, what is the Republican “extremism,” or at least immoderation, that Kabaservice highlights? Was the 2017 tax cut a form of immoderation? It seems so to Kabaservice because “the absence of moderate influence in crafting that tax cut is evident in its passage without a single Democratic vote.” Kabaservice also seems to think that because the 2017 tax cut was a bad idea that will boost the debt by $1.9 trillion over a decade, then that also indicates its immoderation. But if the American pastime of boosting the debt is immoderate, I guess almost no one can qualify as moderate. Moreover, it seems odd to call a tax cut a manifestation of immoderation in a country that was founded on a tax revolt.

In fact, throughout both West’s and Kabaservice’s contributions, I’m not quite sure what “moderation” is. If legislation passed without single opposing party vote is immoderate, then I guess the Affordable Care Act is also an example. And if legislation that doesn’t work in principle and in theory counts as immoderate, then the ACA would also count.

Finally, we should think about proposed solutions to the purported problem of immoderation in two broad categories: 1) fixing the people and 2) fixing the system. Fixing the people solutions tend to look at immoderation as a problem with people’s attitudes, information, motivations, and experiences. Fixing the system solutions tend to focus more on adjusting our governmental structures so that immoderation is less costly and more contained.

My contribution focused on fixing the system, and as such it was in line with the Madisonian view of using institutions to mitigate the effects of people’s ignorance and self-interested motivations. Federalist No. 10 is of course a masterful exploration of how a diverse electorate can mitigate the self-interested motivations of factions. The Electoral College was supposed to exercise independent judgment and thus be a bulwark between the presidency and the ignorance and parochial concerns of the common man. The House of Representatives, being the only popularly elected body in the original Constitution, was to be checked by a Senate that would not be an embodiment of the foibles and shortcomings of the average voter. And finally, as I pointed out, a properly constrained federal government would not pit South Carolinians against New Yorkers in a battle over which will control the other’s way of life.

West’s essay largely focuses on “fixing the people” solutions. I’m skeptical, however, that such exhortations will do anything to overcome the basic tendencies of humans to remain ignorant about things that they have little control over (e.g. their government through voting), to prefer associating with like-minded people, to seek information that confirms rather than challenges their beliefs, to hold prejudices against groups they have rarely interacted with, and to segregate into communities that broadly have the policies they prefer. Those are powerful forces, and mandatory voting, political conversations, and information diversification are unlikely to do much to combat them.

Madison understood that, to a large extent, we must accept the foibles and limitations of people when constructing a government that protects liberty yet allows for collective action when needed. The task is to design a government that is suitable to the people, not a people who are suitable to the government.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Growing political polarization has made it difficult for the American left and right to understand one another, much less to work together. Darrell M. West blames several factors for this, including our electoral system itself, the news media, and low voter turnout — a state of affairs in which nearly by definition, only those with extreme views will vote. He suggests several measures to make it easier to vote and floats the idea of mandatory voting as well. He also recommends conscious, real-world engagement with our nominal political enemies and widening our menu of information sources.

Response Essays

  • Jason Sorens says that moderation is not the same thing as tolerance, pragmatism, or open-mindedness. Moderation hides political problems rather than solving them, and often it perpetuates evil. Parties with sharp ideological differences give voters a meaningful choice, which is surely a virtue in a democracy. Party discipline should be stronger, he says, as this, and not moderation, will counteract tribalism.

  • We fail to be moderate, says Trevor Burrus, because so much is at stake. The way to moderation is by lowering the stakes and devolving more authority to state and local governments. A widely diverse electorate of 330 million people cannot possibly be expected to agree on all the things that present-day politics demands of it. Today a razor-thin national majority is sufficient to enact many sweeping policy changes that bind on everyone, and it should thus be no surprise that our politics are acrimonious. The results won’t change until the system itself changes.

  • Geoffrey Kabaservice blames the Republican Party for the partisanship on display in recent American politics. If moderation means an occasional willingness to break the ideological mold, this is the quality he believes to be lacking, and he has little optimism about its return. Meanwhile declining life expectancy, climate change, and rising federal debt are all major problems in need of broadly appealing solutions.